Thursday, October 16, 2014

Cambodia’s Curse by Joel Brinkley

Subtitle: The Modern History of a Troubled Land

            [Apology: This review is a bit of a mess.  I’m sorry about that.  A more intelligent person perhaps could have written a more succinct and coherent review, but as for me, in order to sort out all my contradictory feelings about this book and the subject, I end up with long ramblings and many digressions.  Feel free to skip this post.]

Background Information
          I suspect this book is not widely known outside of the Cambodian expat community.  Not that it’s obscure by any means—it was printed by a major publisher and reviewed in many major publications like the New York Times [LINK HERE].  But I suspect in any other country, this book just sits quietly in the back of the bookstores and nobody takes much notice. (Although correct me if I’m wrong.  Is this book popular back in the U.S. ?)
            But here in Cambodia, this book caused a big sensation among the expat community when it was first published in 2011, and it has continued to be a popular topic of conversation ever since.
            Basically, the book is one long rant about how corrupt Cambodian society is.
           Since the book confirms everything expats in Cambodia have been complaining about for years, it was naturally a big hit among the expat community here.

Why I Avoided This Book until Now / The Importance of Trying To Keep Perspective
          When I was in Japan, the popular book among the Japan expat community was Dogs and Demons by Alexander Kerr (A).  That was a book written by an American expat in Japan, and it was all about how the Japanese were doing everything wrong, and it was widely popular among us expats because it confirmed what we had been feeling all along—the Japanese were doing everything wrong, and the Western ways were better after all.  (I read Dogs and Demons before I started this book review project, and consequently never fully reviewed it online, but it made an impression on me, and I have referenced it HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE.)
            The buzz Cambodia’s Curse has generated among the expats here in Cambodia reminds me very much about the buzz around Dogs and Demons back in Japan.  In Japan, in every expat conversation about how the Japanese were doing everything wrong, sooner or later someone would always say, “It’s just like it says in Dogs and Demons.  Have you read that book yet?”  Now in Cambodia, in every expat conversation about how Cambodian society is doing everything wrong, you can guarantee someone will bring up Cambodia’s Curse.
            I suspect every expat community in every country has a book about how their host country is doing everything wrong.  (In the 19th century, there were any number of books published about America by European travelers and observers, almost all of who came away with the impression that Americans were doing everything wrong.)

            For better or for worse, it’s human nature, and the Culture Shock cycle is a well-documented phenomena.  I’ve written on this before, but there are a number of reason why it happens.  It’s always a bit discomforting to adjust yourself to a new culture and a new way of life.  You’re constantly finding that society no longer works the way you expect it to work, and after the initial excitement of being in a foreign country dies away (around the 1 or 2 month mark), you start to feel frustrated with it.  And then you meet up with other expats who also share your frustration, and confirm your bias that everyone is doing everything wrong here, and it’s all too easy to fall into negativity.
            That, plus there is a tendency to group all the nationals of your host country together.  (If someone cuts you off in traffic in your own country, you just assume that that individual is a jerk.  If someone does it to you in a foreign country, there is a dangerous tendency to assume all the people of this country must be bad drivers.)
            And, because the longer you’re away from your own native country, the more you forget about it, there’s also a tendency to forget that most of the problems you complain about in your new host country also exist back in your own country.
            I’m as guilty of all of these things as everyone else, and I’ve been known to complain about the nationals in my host country just as much as the other expats.  A certain amount of this kind of thinking is, I believe, inevitable, and just a part of human nature.  It’s unrealistic to expect to purge yourself of it completely, but the key is to watch it—to notice it when it start to happens, to remind yourself why you’re starting to think these things, and to try to avoid deliberately feeding that negativity.

            Reading a book like Cambodia’s Curse seemed like it would deliberately feed that negativity, and so I decided to avoid it.  And did so successfully for a couple years at least, until I finally gave in….

Why I Gave In and Read This Book Anyway
          I was browsing through Monument Bookstore the other day, and I saw this book on the shelves.  And I decided to just flip through it out of curiosity.  Maybe just read a couple pages, see what the book was like.

            The writing style was interesting and engaging.  (Joel Brinkley is a journalist by trade, and knows how to write very readable prose.)  Also, I discovered contrary to expectations that much of the book was not just one long disorganized rant, but that it was organized in the framework of a story about Cambodia’s recent history.  It included a lot of information about the recent history of Cambodia and the international community in the 1990s that I was ignorant of, and that was interesting to me.

            And that’s when I realized: “Ah Crap!  I’m going to have to read this book after all now!”

The Review
          Polemical books (and this is definitely a polemical book) are a sort of guilty pleasure.  On the one hand, your better judgment is warning you that you’re surrendering your brain to an author who is only going to show you one side of the problem.
            But on the other hand, part of you gets a cheap thrill out of surrendering to the emotions of a polemic.  There’s a bit of an adrenaline rush when you get yourself worked up into a self-righteous anger at the bastards the author is attacking.  Rants are, let’s face it, a lot of fun to read.  The shock value of a good rant is a lot more fun to read than some boring piece of even-handed, well-rounded analysis.

            And so I confess, I enjoyed reading this book immensely.  So much so that I had trouble putting it down, stayed up late reading it, and finished the whole thing off in a couple of days.  Whatever other faults this book may have, readability is not one of them.

            The first half of the book is a recent history of Cambodia and the role of the international community’s (particularly the role of the United States) in Cambodia’s politics.  I had not previously read a lot about Cambodia in the 1990s, and I learned a lot of interesting things about Cambodia’s recent history.
            In the second half of the book, this historical framework is dropped, and the book goes into analysis mode about Cambodia’s various problems.

            [While talking to a co-worker in the staff room, I mentioned this book to him in conversation.  The next time I saw him, after a long weekend, he thanked me for the recommendation, and told me he had devoured the book over the holiday weekend.  “I stayed up late into the night reading it,” he told me.  “And then when I finally went to bed, I couldn’t wait to get up in the morning and start reading it again.  It just explained to me so much about Cambodian history and politics.”  So, it’s not just me that finds this book addictive.  Now, granted, probably this book is more interesting to those of us inside Cambodia than it would be to residents of any other country.  But I’m sure anyone with a moderate interest in politics or history will devour this book.]

          Although Joel Brinkley’s criticizes many things about Cambodia (from the supposed laziness of the people, to their lack of innovation, to their hierarchical social structure, to the medieval mindset of the provincial government officials, to their lack of critical thinking abilities) the main thrust of his book is about the misappropriation of international aid money.  Since the 1992 Peace Accords, literally billions of international aid money has flowed into this country, and virtually all of it has ended up in the private pockets of Cambodian government officials, while the people in the Cambodian countryside continue to starve.

          The curse of Cambodia is that the structure of its own society has made it impossible for the international aid community to help it’s poor, despite years of effort.

            And as Joel Brinkley demonstrates, it’s not just cash dollars.  Rice, donated to Cambodia to feed the starving poor in a famine stricken province, was misappropriated and sold again on the market.  Medicine donated to help the poor was sold on the market instead.  (Although it was after the publication of this book, there was a scandal recently where textbooks intended for poor children, donated to the Cambodian government, were found being sold on the market. [LINK HERE])

            With such a government in place, all the goodwill of the international community comes to nothing, and one despairs of ever being able to help Cambodia get out of poverty.

            Although I think Joel Brinkley over-reaches himself with his constant negative assessments of Cambodian society (and I’ll get around to nit-picking him to death further down below) to the best of my knowledge, none of what he writes about government corruption in Cambodia is in any dispute.  It’s reported daily in the newspapers over here, and it takes place on such a large scale that it would be impossible to hide anyway.  The Boeung Kak Lake incident (W), for example, which Brinkley describes in chapter 14 of his book (when the Cambodian government forcibly evicted all the residents around a lake in Phnom Penh, then filled in the lake with sand and sold off the newly created real-estate to a development company) would have been impossible to try to hide, because it took place in the center of the city directly under the noses of everyone.  (As Joel Brinkley puts it, much of the blatant corruption and human rights abuses take place right outside the windows of the World Bank’s offices.)

            The question about what to do about, however, is less clear cut.
            At some points in the book (the last couple pages, for example) Joel Brinkley implies that a change of government might bring about a reform of corruption.  But his own pessimistic history of Cambodia undercuts that optimism.  The present Hun Sen government may be corrupt, but every previous government of Cambodia appears to have been equally corrupt.  Joel Brinkley gives a brief history of the Lon Nol government in the 1970s, which is largely in line with what William Shawcross wrote about the Lon Nol government in Sideshow—the United States poured money into the Lon Nol government in an effort to strengthen it against the communists, but all of that money ended up in the private pockets of generals and government officials while the soldiers were left unequipped and starving out in the field.  And before Lon Nol, the Sihanouk government was also notorious for corruption.
            Corruption is not only a problem with the prime minister’s office, but permeates all levels of society in Cambodia, from the lowliest government official and police officer, to even the schools (where teachers daily demand bribes from their students.)

           So even assuming the international community could enforce regime change in Cambodia, there’s no indication to hope that the subsequent Cambodian government would be any less corrupt.
            But of course, regime change wouldn’t be a realistic option anyway.  The United Nations occupation of Cambodia in 1992, which Joel Brinkley describes in this book, was essentially a toothless tiger because the U.N. member states were not willing to commit the huge amount of troops and money that would have been needed to effectively disarm the existing belligerents, and consequently the U.N. was not able to firmly establish control on the ground.
            Should we go back a little bit further in history, everyone remembers the disastrous attempt by the United States during the 1960s and 70s to dictate which types of governments would be established in Southeast Asia.

            So, it’s clear that however horrible the current Cambodian government is, the international community is stuck with it.  The international community must deal with the Cambodian government as it is, not as they would like it to be.
            With that in mind, it’s doubtful whether Joel Brinkley’s book is going to effect any change, at least on the Cambodian side of things—corruption in Cambodian politics is so well established that no amount of public shaming is going to convince the Cambodian government to change their ways.
            However, if you believe that people guilty of gross injustices deserve a public shaming just for its own sake, then this book has some value.  It may not change anything, but at the very least it exposes these corrupt government officials for what they are.  And so I’d recommend the book just on that account.

            The other value this book has, for any American who cares where their tax dollars are going, is it is the beginning of a conversation about whether America and the international community should continue to pour billions of aid dollars into Cambodia after it has been well-established that almost all of that money always ends up in private pockets.

            Exactly what Joel Brinkley recommends should be the policy of the international community going forward is not clear.  (Or at least not clear to me.)  There are times when he appears to be implying that non-governmental aid workers in Cambodia continue to be funded, but that all direct money given to the Cambodian government be cut off. 
            But there are times when he appears to be equally cynical about the various NGOs working in Cambodia, and implies that their presence in Cambodia and cooperation with the Cambodian government legitimizes a regime famous for human rights violations.  Also, he argues, the social services provided by international NGOs in Cambodia take the stress off of the Cambodian government to provide these same services, and allow the Cambodian government officials to simply pocket the revenue obtained by their own taxes.

            The alternative, then, is for the international community to just turn its back on Cambodia completely.  But this may not be a realistic option.

            Joel Brinkley hints that the international aid money funding the Cambodian government makes the international community a partner in the Cambodian government’s human rights abuses.  But however terrible the Cambodian government is, the international aid dollars mean that they have to at least make some sort of show of being accountable to the international community.  There is the possibility that things could be even worse if the international community broke off engagement with Cambodia. 
            To this argument, Joel Brinkley responds that the Cambodian Government has grown so skillful at playing the international community—consistently making promises that they never fulfill—that the international community is really getting nothing right now in return for its aid dollars.
            How much influence international aid dollars have on human rights is debatable, but it definitely has some influence.  In his own book, Joel Brinkley gives a couple examples of Hun Sen quickly bowing to pressure when the U.S. government put its foot down on something.

            (There may well be some realpolitik reasons for the U.S. Government to continue funding Cambodia—it buys the U.S. some amount of influence over the Cambodian government, and it acts as a counter influence to China, which is also trying to buy influence in Cambodia.  I’m not saying that this should be a reason for the U.S. Government to continue to fund Cambodia, but I’m cynical enough to recognize that it probably will be a reason.)

            However, whatever position one takes on the international aid money, Joel Brinkley’s book is valuable because it does a definitive job of setting the terms of the debate.  After Cambodia’s Curse, it is no longer possible to give money to the Cambodian Government with any illusions that this money will fund the projects that it is intended to fund (as the World Bank has naively continued to do for years.)  Joel Brinkley has effectively demolished this position.  Now, you can either just accept that the money will be siphoned off into private pockets but continue to give anyway, or you can cut off funding completely.

            So to sum up, I don’t disagree with Joel Brinkley’s main thesis that the Cambodian government is incredibly corrupt.  (To the best of my knowledge, no one has disagreed with his thesis.)  But what to do about it is less clear. 

            My big problem with the book is its tone.  Criticism of a particular government is all well and good, but sometimes the book seems to feel as if it’s just a little bit too anti-Cambodian in tone.

The Anti-Cambodian Tone of this Book
          The tone of this book is a little bit difficult to put one’s finger on, because the author seems to be implying different things at different times.  At points in the book he makes it clear that he is attacking the government of Cambodia, and not the Cambodian people.  But at other points, he doesn’t make this as clear as he could, and there were some sections and some implications that left me feeling a bit uncomfortable.  It’s enough to make me want to caveat my recommendation of this book.  It’s a good book, it’s interesting to read, it’s right about the problem of corruption, but…

          The first point of caution is the relentless negativity of the author.  This is not surprising, since a negative assessment of Cambodian society is his thesis.  But to a certain extent, any polemical book is going to be problematic.  The author is going to have a bias towards including information that supports their thesis, and ignoring information that contradicts their thesis.  And although I agree with the main premise of this book (the Cambodian government really is incredibly corrupt, and the Cambodian people are suffering as a result) this book does share the problems of its genre. 
            When looking at Cambodian society, and Cambodian history for the last 20 years, there’s a lot of positive things to be said, and a lot of negative things to be said.  This book is set on emphasizing the negatives.  All the positives are either ignored, or acknowledged only in passing, or the significance of the positives are downplayed. 
            Should one choose to see the glass as half full, there are a number of positive things that could be said about the last twenty years.  Examples:
--Cambodia, as Joel Brinkley points out several times, is still far behind all its neighbors in terms of rice production and economic development.  But that’s only the negative side of it.  The positive side is that remarkable progress has been made in the past 20 years.
--20 years ago there was no middle class in Cambodia.  Now they are a visible presence in the cities and continuing to grow.
--Despite the fact that 30 years of horrific civil war should have left a lot of ill-feeling and smoldering grudges on all sides, since the 1992 Peace Accords, Cambodians have done a remarkable job of leaving the past behind and all sides now live in peace with their former enemies.
--In comparison with most of its totalitarian neighbors, Cambodia has a remarkable degree of freedom in the press
--Although there’s still a long way to go, infrastructure and public education have been improving in the past 20 years.

            So, like all polemics, the book has a problem with perspective.

          The biggest problem with this book is its tendency to see everything associated with Cambodia in a negative light.  And while no one would deny that Cambodia has a lot of problems, sometimes you get the feeling that Joel Brinkley is deliberately choosing the examples that put Cambodia in the worst light.  Whenever there are multiple explanations for a problem, he usually chooses the one that puts the blame on the Cambodians.  And while I don’t disagree with the main thrust of his book there are times when I felt he was being slightly ungenerous to the Cambodian people.
            Joel Brinkley recounts the first 1000 of Cambodian history by briefly summarizing up all the negative things that the Chinese, Vietnamese and Thais had to say about Cambodia.  Example: “A few years later the Vietnamese emperor assigned his best general, Troung Minh Giang, to civilize the Cambodians.  But in short order, the general gave up.  “After studying the situation,” he reported, “we have decided that Cambodian officials only know how to bribe and be bribed.  Offices are sold.  Nobody carries out orders; everyone works for his own account” (p. 23).
            There is a danger, of course, on relying too much on the hostile accounts of Cambodia’s neighbors.  (In addition to the natural tendency of foreigners to always complain about the country they are visiting, Thai and Vietnam have historically always been eager to prove that they are racially superior to the Cambodians.)  Plus, the reluctance of Cambodian officials to carry out Vietnamese reforms can be seen as a passive resistance to foreign imperialism, and not inherent corruption.  (As the Cambodians would later do with the French.)  But even assuming 19th Century Cambodian society was every bit as corrupt as the Vietnamese described it, it’s always dangerous to assume too much historical continuity between the corruption of the past and the problems of the present.  After all, how long ago was it that our Western societies were every bit as corrupt?  Go back a few centuries in the history of the English speaking world, and you have the thoroughly corrupt government of Henry VIII, for example.
            This pattern continues when Brinkley gets to the French period.  From page 26, Brinkley writes: “Over the following decades [after 1870], the French grew ever more frustrated with the Cambodian people.  Just as the Thai and Vietnamese before them, the French viewed the populace as ignorant and torpid.  As for the government bureaucracy, one French administrator described it as “worm-eaten debris,” historian John Tully wrote.  As ever, the government’s legal and administrative officials were dedicated only to enriching themselves.  The French calculated that they pocked about 40 percent of the nation’s revenue.

            It is indeed true that the French thought this.  Milton Osborne and Gregor Muller, in their respective books also write that the French thought the Cambodians were lazy and stupid.  But Milton Osborne and Gregor Muller were smart enough to treat these reports with caution, and noted that this was exactly the type of thing that colonial governments usually say about the people they are ruling, and more than anything it may just have been reflective of the French ignorance of the Cambodian way of life than it was indicative that the Cambodians really were lazy and stupid.
            Joel Brinkley, however, makes no such qualifications.  He doesn’t go as far as to explicitly say the French are correct, but by reiterating the negative reports of the French and the Vietnamese, he leaves that impression.

            At times, he almost seems to be hinting that there’s an inherited racial explanation behind the ignorance of Cambodians.  From page 9:
            Most Vietnamese students stay in school until at least the tenth grade.  By the tenth grade in Cambodia, all but 13 percent of the students have dropped out.  Vietnam’s national literacy rate is above 90 percent.  UN agencies say that Cambodia’s hovers around 70 percent, though available evidence suggests that may be far too generous.  Most Cambodians over thirty-five or forty years of age have had little if any schooling at all.  The explanations behind these and many other cultural and economic disparities lie in part in the nation’s origins.  Vietnamese are the ancestors of the Chinese, while Cambodians emigrated from the Indian subcontinent.  From China, the Vietnamese inherited a hunger for education, a drive to succeed—attitudes that Cambodian culture discourages.”
            Okay, now, to be fair, you don’t have to interpret that paragraph as talking about racial determinism.  He could be talking here about cultural determinism, but the word choice is a bit unfortunate—inherited, for example, seems to imply an inherited genetic predisposition.  At least that’s how I read it the first time through.

            It’s worth noting at this point that Joel Brinkley has gotten in trouble for insensitive racial writings before.  A couple years ago, his condemnatory column on Vietnamese culture got a lot of people upset, and he was accused in many quarters of being a racist.  [For the controversy see HERE, HERE, HERE or HERE.]

            [By the way, notice the inconsistency in the above paragraph?  First he says “Vietnamese are the ancestors of the Chinese,” then he says “From China, the Vietnamese inherited.  So which is it?  There are a number of mistakes like that in that in the book which should really have been picked up by a copy-editor.  They’re all minor mistakes, and none of them seriously interfere with understanding the book, but a major publishing house really should have done a better job of copy-editing.]

On Sam Rainsy
          Sam Rainsy (W) has spent the last 20 years as the main opposition to the current Cambodian Government, and has consistently advocated against the corruption of the current regime.  In the hands of another author, Sam Rainsy might have been the hero of this story.  But Joel Brinkley presents a pessimistic view of Cambodia, in which all Cambodians are tainted, and so Sam Rainsy is portrayed in Cambodia’s Curse not as a genuine reformer, but as a gigantic egotist. 
            Sam Rainsy probably is an egotist.  He’s a politician after all.  But egotistical politicians are not a uniquely Cambodian trait.  Throughout history, in Western history as well as Asian history, political opposition leaders have always been motivated as much as by egotism as by idealism.  Some of the greatest political reformers in history have been huge egotists, so the one does not necessarily negate the other.  (Or if it does, at the very least it’s not a uniquely Cambodian problem.)

On Sideshow by William Shawcross
            Of the book Sideshow by William Shawcross (which I’ve previously read and reviewed on this blog), Joel Brinkley writes:
            Much of the scholarship of the Khmer Rouge was written in the first few years after their reign.  And most of that was colored by the general disdain, endemic among journalists and authors, for Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and America’s misadventures in Vietnam.  It’s hard to overstate the contempt so many people felt, especially Europeans.  The more recent broad, scornful view of George W. Bush  seems mild in comparison.
            In this Climate William Shawcross, a British journalist, wrote his seminal book, Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon, and the Destruction of Cambodia.  It concluded that the American bombing of Cambodia, intended to destroy the Vietcong sanctuaries there, drove the peasantry to the Khmer Rouge and ensured their victory. The liberal media (and I was a card-carrying member; I read an admired his book while flying to Cambodia in 1979) heaped adulation on Shawcross.
            Now, thirty years later, with passions cooled, it is quite clear that his conclusion was wrong.  The American bombing began a year before the Lon Nol coup. Sihanouk had quietly acquiesced, saying he wanted to be sure the Vietnam War did not spread into his own country.  And in 1970 the Khmer Rouge was still a negligible force. (p. 31)

            I’m not sure Joel Brinkley is doing a very good job of arguing against Shawcross here.  In fact, I’m not even entirely sure I follow his argument.  He’s saying that Shawcross concluded that “the American bombing of Cambodia, intended to destroy the Vietcong sanctuaries there, drove the peasantry to the Khmer Rouge and ensured their victory” but this can’t be true because now it is quite clear that “The American bombing began a year before the Lon Nol coup. Sihanouk had quietly acquiesced, saying he wanted to be sure the Vietnam War did not spread into his own country.  And in 1970 the Khmer Rouge was still a negligible force.”  But is that a rebuttal, or a non-sequitur?  How is the one connected with the other?  Shawcross never argued that Sihanouk didn’t approve the secret bombings, nor did he argue that the Khmer Rouge wasn’t a negligible force in 1970. In fact quite the opposite, Shawcross argues that because the Khmer Rouge was a negligible force in 1970, they would never have grown into anything if Cambodia had been allowed to stay out of the Vietnam War.
            To be fair, Joel Brinkley does eventually get around to highlighting his difference of opinion with Shawcross 3 paragraphs later on the following page.  More recent scholarship has suggested that the American bombing, for all its wanton, deadly results, so disrupted the nation that it delayed the Khmer Rouge’s ultimate victory until after the B-52 campaign had ended, in August 1973. (p. 32) 
            Shawcross argues the opposite—that American bombing so disrupted the nation that it accelerated the Khmer Rouge victory. 
            But the American bombing is only one part of Shawcross’s book, and every other part of Shawcrosses analysis Joel Brinkley seems to be in complete agreement with.  Like Shawcross, Joel Brinkley believes that Lon Nol’s 1970 coup ultimately lead to the Khmer Rouge victory, and like Shawcross, Brinkley suspects the U.S. government may have been behind the coup.  Like Shawcross, Brinkley believes that the U.S. government was not concerned about Cambodia at all for its own sake, but only concerned about how events in Cambodia influenced the war in Vietnam.  Like Shawcross, Brinkley believes that the U.S. State Department seriously blundered by not initially recognizing that the Khmer Rouge were an independent entity from the Vietnamese Communists.  Like Shawcross, Brinkley believed that the U.S. financial and military aid to the Lon Nol government was ineffective because it only encouraged more corruption by Lon Nol’s generals. 
            Given the fact that Brinkley agrees with Shawcross much more than he disagrees with him, it’s curious that he highlights one point of disagreement as a rational for discounting Shawcross’s analysis.  Perhaps Joel Brinkley did not actually read the book he is critiquing here.

            Also, go back and re-read those three paragraphs I quoted above.  Who do you think is Joel Brinkley’s target audience here?  Maybe I’m being paranoid, but does it seem like he’s using a lot of buzzwords designed to appeal to Red-State conservative America?  The derogatory reference to the liberal media, and the propensity of journalist, authors, and Europeans to feel contempt and scorn for our Presidents.  (Even though he self-identifies as a member of the liberal media, it’s a common enough rhetorical technique for conservative journalists to claim they used to be part of the liberal establishment, so now they have the right to criticize it.)

Other Nitpicks
* On page 9, Joel Brinkley writes: “The rich, fertile Mekong Delta in the South was part of Cambodia for centuries—until June 4, 1949, in fact, when France, which was occupying both nations, simply awarded the territory to Vietnam.”
            This is not true.  Vietnam had de facto control over the Mekong Delta since the 1600s, even if France didn’t formalize the boarders until 1949.  And although it’s a minor historical footnote to Joel Brinkley’s main story, it’s a shocking error that shows Joel Brinkley and his copy editors were just not doing their research.

* On page 189, Joel Brinkley writes of an interview subject: “His sense of humor was rare among Cambodians.  In fact, it was quite rare to see Cambodians laugh at all.  Given their desperate situation, they seldom even smiled.”
            WHAT?  Oh boy, is this ever not true!  Not true at all.  In fact, it’s very much the opposite.  Cambodians are laughing and smiling all the time.
            How, HOW, did these sentences get published?  What was Joel Brinkley thinking?  What were his copy editors thinking?  What were his proofreaders thinking?  (Did they get any one with a knowledge of Cambodia to proofread this book before publication?)   I mean—Really!

* There’s a strange story in the beginning chapters of this book about 81 Cambodian military officers from the Lon Nol regime who were studying in the U.S. when the Khmer Rouge took power.  They all insisted on going back home to their wives and families despite the danger of the Khmer Rouge.  Years later, their American case worker, Cindy Coleman, goes to Cambodia to try to find them.  Some of them were killed at the Toul Sleng, but not all of them.  Cindy Coleman decides to continue her search and…
            …And very curiously, this story is just dropped entirely with no conclusion.  I’m assuming this is also something that just got missed when this book was in the editing process. 

* From page 339: “Cambodians themselves are the first to tell you that they hold no real national identity. They seldom feel “Cambodian.”  That has been true through the ages.  But the Khmer Rouge era hardened this trait.  “The survival instinct has taken over,” said Ing Kantha Phavi, the minister of women’s affairs.  “Surviving doesn’t mean giving help to others.  If you help others, you may be betrayed.  A lot of people did a lot of bad things to survive. So people are individualistic.  They think only of themselves.  They think first of survival.  They don’t think of society at all.”
            The phrase “Cambodians….hold no real national identity” is carelessly written, but it is more or less true in the sense he means it.  Unlike some strongly nationalistic countries, like Japan, there is no sense in Cambodia of the need to subjugate your own personal good for the greater good of the nation.  It is very much, as the above quote illustrates, every person for themselves.  And in that sense, there is no sense of “nationalism” in Cambodia.
            But this is not the same as saying Cambodians have no national identity.  They have a unique language, religions, culture, national holidays, unique music, et cetera.  And they do have a very strong sense of being “Cambodian” as defined in opposition to their traditional enemies Vietnam and Thailand.  Cambodians are also hugely proud of Angkor Wat and the ancient Angkor Kingdom, which they think demonstrates their inherent superiority to Thais and Vietnamese.  (The subsequent 800 years of history after Angkor Wat, in which Cambodia was continually held in subjugation by Vietnam and Thailand, they view as simply a temporary aberration.)

* On page 25, Joel Brinkley gives a very short history of the French Colonization of Cambodia, in which it’s implied that Cambodia was a willing participant in French colonialism.  The king signed a treaty with France in 1863, offering timber and mining rights in exchange for protection from Cambodia’s neighbors. 
            There is an element of truth to the fact that Cambodia benefited from French protection, but the French did have to strong-arm the Cambodian king into giving away his sovereignty.  John Cady describes this in detail in The Roots of French Imperialism in Eastern Asia. 

Description of Phnom Penh
          From pages 3-4: On the streets of Phnom Penh hundreds of young people buzz past on motorbikes, carrying wives and children and every manner of cargo—mattresses, plate glass, even pigs and other livestock.  Motorbikes outnumber cars by at least fifty to one. Espresso bars and stylish restaurants dot the cityscape—primarily for the thousands of international aid workers who still live and work here.  One new twenty-seven story skyscraper, a bank, is up, and several others are under construction, rising quickly in competition for the city’s sky.
            Everywhere you look in this most tropical of lands, flowers are abloom.  Trees show off bright red, yellow, orange, or blue blossoms that rustle gently in the breeze.  Now and then, you can spot a wild monkey jumping from branch to branch, even in the city center.  Look up at the palm or mango trees, and you’ll see ripe coconuts and fruits just waiting to be plucked.  In fact, amid the litter in the streets—where in the United States you’d see half-crushed Bud Light cans and plastic water bottles—you’ll find bristly, red lychee-nut shells and coconuts with drinking straws poking out of small holes.
            Actually, that’s not a bad description of Phnom Penh.  (The only thing that’s perhaps changed in the 3 years since this book was published is that those stylish Espresso bars are no longer solely for the international aid workers, but are now filled with young middle-class Cambodian teenagers.)

Description of Cambodian Provinces
          There’s some very vivid description in this book about what life in the provinces is like, and how little the modern world has reached them:
            This [Cambodia] is a nation so abundant that for all of time Cambodians have been able, as people here put it, “to live by nature”—to grow rice, pick fruit, catch fish, and live in homes built from nearby trees and vegetation.  With all that plenitude for the taking, who needs the modern world?
            In Saharan Africa, the Brazilian Amazon, and other remote places, indigenous tribes live by this credo.  But Cambodia is the only place where the bulk of the nation, more than three-quarters of its people, still lives more or less as they did 1,00 years ago.  (p. 4)
            Paul Mason, a social worker, has worked in Cambodia for nearly two decades, and he recalls standing with a colleague beside a harvested rice field a few years ago, when the colleague stood on top of his car, looked in every direction, and remarked: “It probably looked like this here 350 years ago!”  In the years since, Mason says he has seem some changes.  A smattering of rural homes now have metal roofs—an anthropologist’s measure of social advancement.  What’s more, in the past few years, motorbikes have shown up parked outside some of the Middle Ages huts.” (p. 6)

            I’ve spent most of my time in Cambodia in the cities, but the few times I’ve gotten out to the provinces, this has been my impression—it very much seems like “the land that time forgot” where aside from the presence of motorbikes, it looks like people living just like they might have done 1,000 years ago.

NGOs in Cambodia
          Joel Brinkley makes the charge that many NGOs in Cambodia aren’t really doing anything useful, but are continuing to stay in Cambodia just because the aid workers like the lifestyle. 
            Overall, so many donors and NGOs were pursuing projects in Cambodia that were tripping over each other.  Several reports on their work noted that many didn’t coordinate with each other and ended up spending time on duplicative projects.  The government often has no idea what they were up to.  “Some of them, particularly the smaller ones, I don’t know what they are doing,” said Im Sethy, the education minister.  No matter.  The foreigners stationed in Cambodia liked the lifestyle.  “People move here just because it is a nice place to live,” said Sara Colm of the Human Rights Watch. “There’s Internet, restaurants.”  (p. 297)
            Critics of the donors and NGOs often noted that they favored expensive Basque, Northern Italian, and Japanese restaurants that charged more for a meal than most Cambodians earned in a year.  That may have been unfair; you don’t have to live like the people you are helping to be compassionate and effective.  Nevertheless, it was clear that these people had a lifestyle they wanted to protect.
            Though their work was challenging, it was often rewarding.  Many were highly paid, and Cambodia charged no income taxes.  They could live in sumptuous homes, and hire as many servants as they wanted.
            If they cut off aid to the government, as the human-rights groups were demanding, many donors would lose their jobs… (p. 298)

            Whether all of this is true or not is a big debate.  But at the very least, Joel Brinkley is not the first person to make this claim.  An article arguing essentially the same thing was published in Slate magazine back in 2011 (Silence of the Lambs: For Do-Gooder NGOS in Cambodia, Accommodation with the Regime is Very Profitable by Ken Silverstein) and at the time caused much discussion over here in the expat community.

            (Oh, and while I’m nit-picking inaccuracies in this book, I should add that the thing about Cambodia charging no income taxes is totally wrong.  I certainly pay income taxes in Cambodia.)

Developments Since the Publication of this Book
          Books like this have a tendency to go out of date very quickly, and although this book was only just published in 2011, in some ways it is already out of date. 
            Joel Brinkley laments that the traumatic history of the past 40 years have so cowed the Cambodians into submission that they lack the courage to protest against their government.  But all this is now out of date since huge anti-government protests have erupted in 2013 to 2014.  (See Wikipedia article: 2013-14 Cambodian Protests)

My Experiences with the Things Described in This Book
          As a simply English teacher, I have very little first-hand experience with the world of government functionaries and NGOs described in this book.
            I do, however, have a wealth of second-hand information.
            Phnom Penh is a small city where the expatriates crowd together in the same few bars, and I’ve met and chatted to lots of interesting people involved in lots of different work here in Cambodia.  Many of them have confirmed to me much of what Joel Brinkley writes in his book.  And although second-hand information should always be treated with caution, I’ll pass on a little bit of what I’ve learned.
            (As with everything I’ve learned second hand, this is all hearsay.  I can’t personally vouch for the reliability of any of it.)

            I’ve talked to several people involved in charitable NGO work that has involved interaction with the Cambodian government.  They’ve all told me that pretty much every thing I imagined about rampant corruption in the Cambodian government is all true.
            One person was involved with a project to arrange for something to be done on behalf of the Cambodian government, which was privately funded through an NGO.  He told me the Cambodian government did no work on the project, government officials would only allow the project if they got the credit for it, and then they were always contriving to skim away money from the project for their own pockets.  “Basically, everything you’ve heard about how lazy and corrupt the Cambodian officials are, is all true,” he told me.

            A co-worker of mine used to work in Thailand, and told me that the Thai’s would often travel to the Cambodian boarder to buy cheap clothes.  It turns out that (so he told me) that foreign charities will collect clothes for poor Cambodians.  These clothes are donated to the Cambodian government, and (allegedly) the Cambodian government sells it across the boarder in Thailand, and just pockets the money.  Joel Brinkley doesn’t mention this in his book, but it’s very easy to believe given what he has written about the misappropriation of food and medicine donated to Cambodia.

            Another co-worker told me a story about a classroom discussion he was doing with his students about the problems of poverty in Cambodia.  The students were assigned to discuss the issue and try to think of possible answers to it.  He told me that the most popular answer was that, “rich countries should donate more money to Cambodia.”
            If this story is true, it indicates a depressing problem in mindset here.  If Joel Brinkley’s book indicates anything, it is that rich countries have been donating tremendous amounts to Cambodia, and it has all ended up in private pockets.  (Although to be fair to these students, they were given an impossible question.  If foreign aid is not the answer, it’s not clear what else is.  As Joel Brinkley writes, the only other sectors of industry in Cambodia are tourism, garment factories, and agriculture, and none of these are likely to pull Cambodia out of poverty.  Hence, Cambodia’s curse.)

            Joel Brinkley writes that one of the major problems with the Cambodian education system is that they’ve built a lot of schools in the provinces, but neglected to put in the money and resources to train up the teachers.  The result is that the teachers often know very little more than the students. 
            A friend of mine, who was an American Peace Corps volunteer and spent time in the provinces trying to train Cambodian teachers, illustrated this to me very vividly with one anecdote.  He said one of the Cambodian teachers once came to him and said, “The students were asking me yesterday if there were any plants on the moon.  I told them there were not many plants.”
            “There aren’t any plants on the moon,” my friend corrected him.
            “Really?” the Cambodian teacher responded surprised.  “Then what do the people there eat?”

            Several of my friends working in NGOs in Cambodia have confirmed to me what Joel Brinkley wrote—that there are many different NGOs in Cambodia all working on similar projects, and the Cambodian government has not bothered to keep track of who is doing what, so many of the NGOs are needlessly duplicating each other’s projects, but without a central authority coordinating NGO work, it is difficult for them to coordinate.  Many of these NGOs are now trying to meet together a few times a year to share notes and coordinate projects, but often a lot of the egotistical personalities involved in running NGOs don’t coordinate well with each other.  (A friend described this to me as “NGO divas”.)

            I’ve also talked to many people involved in the Khmer Rouge trials.  (One girl I met introduced herself to me by saying, “Well, like everyone else, I’m here because I’m working on the Khmer Rouge trials.”  “Is everyone working on the Khmer Rouge trials?” I asked.  “Oh yeah,” she said.  “Throw a stone somewhere and you’ll hit one of them.”)  They have told me many of the problems involved with the Khmer Rouge trials that Joel Brinkley details, and in fact some of them have told me many more problems than are contained in Joel Brinkley’s book.

            Much of Joel Brinkley’s analysis of Cambodia can be found by just daily reading the newspapers here.  Both The Phnom Penh Post and The Cambodia Daily contain daily articles that detail just about all the problems Joel Brinkley writes about.
            I’ve talked to members of the Phnom Penh Post, who have essentially confirmed to me what Joel Brinkley wrote about the press freedoms in Cambodia.  “I’ve got to say,” I said to one of them, “I’m surprised that you guys get away with printing all the stuff that you do.”  (A surprising amount of the government corruption is blatantly laid out every day in the Phnom Penh Post and The Cambodian Daily.)
            “Well, yes, there is a significant degree of press freedom in Cambodia,” he told me.  “But we get away with a lot because we only publish in English, so very few Cambodians can read what we publish.  And even after that there are limits.  We can’t directly criticize high-ranking government officials.”  (All of this is pretty much exactly the same thing Joel Brinkley writes about the Phnom Penh Post.)

            Another thing that Joel Brinkley writes about in his book, which I haven’t commented on thus far, is the huge problem of domestic violence in Cambodia, which he attributes to a national PTSD after the Khmer Rouge era.  He also claims that the generation that suffered from the Khmer Rouge has also passed down this PTSD to their children through domestic violence.
            Although I’ve never personally witnessed any violence here (aside from the odd short lived scuffle), reading the daily paper in Cambodia does seems to confirm this theory, since every day there are reported acts of very brutal violence for very little provocation.  It’s very tempting for us foreigners to sometimes conclude that the Cambodians must be a very traumatized people. 
            …But, here again, a little perspective is necessary.  How many brutal crimes are reported everyday in the newspapers of our own home countries?  How many ghettos in New York or Baltimore contain just as much senseless violence as the Cambodian countryside?
            The PTSD argument is popular here among the expat community in Cambodia, and is often invoked whenever a foreigner perceives a Cambodian as behaving irrationally.  Something along the lines of, “Oh well, you can’t really expect them to think logically like we do.  They were all traumatized as children.”  Although there may be some truth to the PTSD argument, it can lend itself to abuses, because it has a way of always putting the foreigner in the right, and always discounting the Cambodian side.
            As for stories personally told to me directly from Cambodian friends, I have heard thus far two stories of domestic violence.  And although the stories were horrific, only 2 stories out of 3 years in the country is probably not statistically significant to indicate that the problem is any worse here than anywhere else in the world.  (What was most surprising to me is that no one ever got arrested for the violence, even though one story involved a girl being beaten to death.)

            As for my own personal experience:
            Phnom Penh (or at least the central part of it) is a very small city, so within walking distance from my apartment are many of the landmarks described in this book: for example the street intersection where Sam Rainsy’s supporters were attacked by a grenade in 1997, and the subsequent monument to the dead which now stands nearby.  Sam Rainsy himself I once saw from a distance, during the election rallies in 2013.  He was standing on a truck waving to his supporters as a big parade went by, and I saw him from a friend’s balcony.
            Also within easy walking distance from my apartment are some of the huge mansions built for themselves by Cambodian government officials that Joel Brinkley describes.

            Although as an English teacher I have no insight into the world of government politics or international aid money, there is a lot of wealth on display in the streets of Phnom Penh which everyone with eyes can see for themselves quite clearly.  As has often been observed by every expat in Cambodia, you see more luxury cars driving the streets of Phnom Penh than you would back home in America or any other Western country.  Given that Cambodia is such a poor country, and given that there is little thriving industry here (aside from agriculture, garment industry sweatshops, and tourism), it is often a source of mystery where all these luxury cars come from.  It is taken as an article of faith among all foreigners here that every luxury car you see somehow derives from corruption, usually siphoning off foreign aid money meant for the poor.
            This maybe an unfair assumption.  (It may be borderline racist to assume that any brown person with a luxurious lifestyle must be corrupt.)  There definitely does seem to be a growing middle class in Phnom Penh, and I can’t imagine all of them are making their living by siphoning off international aid money.  But I’d be lying if I said I knew the ins and outs of the economy here very.  I’m just an English teacher.

            [Addendum: I was recently having a conversation with a friend of mine, who works as a U.N. analyst.  (Because Phnom Penh is a small city, I mix with a lot of different people here.)  We were discussing the growing middle class in Cambodia.  That it’s growing is undeniable—private tuition that middle class Cambodians pay for their children’s English education pays my salary, for example.  And recently a Japanese company opened up a Western style luxury shopping mall in the middle of Phnom Penh [LINK HERE].  Although the mall is funded by Japanese money, the fact that they opened it in Cambodia indicates that they expect a steady stream of customers for many years to come.  “Where is all this money coming from?” My U.N. friend asked.  “There’s no growing industry in Cambodia.  And I can’t believe that all of this money is coming from corruption.”  I agreed.  “The thing with corruption is that it’s not a stable source of income,” I said.  “You could conceivably siphon off a huge some of money and buy a big car with it, but you couldn’t put your kid through school for 16 years.”  And yet, that there is a growing middle class in Phnom Penh is in no doubt.  Some of this money may be trickle down effect from corruption, or from overpaid NGO workers in Cambodia.  If so, could you argue that all the international aid money in Cambodia has done some good after all?]

            And finally, it is perhaps cliché in these discussions to add, “But of course the people are good even if their government isn’t.”  And yet, it does need to be said, least one leaves off on an overly negative note.  My Cambodian neighbors, students, and co-workers are all very lovely people.


            Joel Brinkley complains several times that the Cambodian government has made no effort to bring electricity out to the provinces.
            It is outside the scope of his book, but in the future the questions of developing 3rd world countries is going to put us on the horns of a dilemma between development on one hand, and the looming environmental catastrophe on the other.  There’s no doubt that people in the 3rd world are living harder and shorter lives because of the lack of access to electricity.  But if all of these areas did start consuming electricity, it would be an ecological disaster—especially since most energy in this part of the world comes from burning coal.
            What to do about this dilemma eludes me. 


            Whatever else you may say about the Cambodian government, it is to their credit that they allow this book to be sold openly in Cambodia.  (And I know that it’s probably only allowed because it’s in English, and that a Cambodian translation would probably not be tolerated, but still….  Many of the neighboring countries near Cambodia would not have allowed it even in English.)  There were many rumors that this book has been banned in Cambodia, but I found it openly being sold in Cambodia’s largest bookstore chain, so it’s clearly not banned here.

A couple other people in my work place are very critical of this book.  Although no one disagrees with the general premise (corruption is a real problem in Cambodia), one of my co-workers noticed Joel Brinkley's tendency to only quote in half sentences instead of full sentences (which he claims is often an indication that the author may be misrepresenting his source material). Another co-worker claims to have found many factual errors in the book (much more than I've noticed) and told me "Joel Brinkley takes the very obvious things about Hun Sen that everyone knows, but then he uses that to distort a lot of the other facts."
I've got a feeling if I went through this book with a fine tooth comb, there's a lot more to comment on than I've done so far.  But I've probably written more than enough here, so I'm going to leave off.

One Last Thought
            A friend of mine spent a couple years as an American Peace Corps out in the Cambodian provinces where (at the small provincial level) he witnessed constant government corruption.  “It used to really make me mad,” he told me, “Until I realized that’s how governments are all over the world.  It’s just way more obvious over here.”

            I disagreed with him.  At some level corruption exists everywhere, sure, but it’s not comparable to Cambodia.  They’re just in a whole other ball game here.

            And yet…in the past couple years I’ve turned this statement over in my head.  Was he right?  Was he wrong?  I go back and forth on it.  On some level he was completely wrong, and on some level he was kind of right.

            Interesting food for thought for problems back here in the U.S. is this recent article on government corruption [LINK HERE] and Philip Christman’s review of Matt Taibbi’s The Divide: American Justice in the Age of the Wealth Gap [LINK HERE]

Link of the Day

Universities are conservative institutions and they support power

No comments: