One Nation Under a Hex

4 minute read
Douglas Gillison

While the murder and madness of the Pol Pot era have given rise to a vast bibliography of history and memoirs of Cambodia, the past 20 years of that poor but beautiful country have been largely unexamined. And that is why it is welcome that someone of Joel Brinkley’s stature should call our attention to contemporary Cambodia’s political and social life.

As a young correspondent, Brinkley witnessed Cambodians at their absolute nadir, sharing a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the 1979 Cambodian refugee crisis in Thailand. For his fifth book, Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land , the former New York Times reporter returns to the region. He finds a nation where the law does not matter, which at its highest levels is governed informally by an oligarchy, and where the citizens, he says in a hyperbolic lapse, are “the most abused people in the world.”

(See the legacy of Pol Pot.)

Page after page, however, is run through with careless errors: Pol Pot did not die a “a free man” (he died the prisoner of his own movement in 1998); the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers do not meet “north of Phnom Penh” (the famous confluence is opposite the Royal Palace); the Phnom Penh park that was the scene of a 1997 massacre is not named after Prime Minister Hun Sen (it is named for an adjacent pagoda — Hun Sen Park is elsewhere); Cambodia has no national oil company (merely a regulatory body).

The author is better when reporting on the ground. Brinkley surveys Cambodia’s hospitals, universities, courts and police, all of which he unsurprisingly finds derelict, pernicious and corrupt. He travels to Pailin province on the Thai border where he observes police, with few resources and little training or support, examining the scene of a double murder in the woods as a crowd gathers. He chronicles the alleged abuses of power committed by Pursat province prosecutor Tob Chan Sereivuth (jailed in November by Cambodia’s anticorruption office) and gives an account of a meeting with a tetchy Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana that feels about right.

(See “The Rise and Fall of the Khmer Rouge.”)

But the central question of the book, which troubles many foreigners who live in Cambodia, is one to which Brinkley gives an unsatisfactory answer: When so many other peoples have rebelled for far less, why should a nation that has a history of violent revolution quietly tolerate so much inequality, impunity and abuse?

Brinkley’s theory is that the nation is “cursed,” an idea that defies analysis and for which he offers little evidence. He admirably describes the gory nightmares and other ills that afflict so much of this traumatized population, and cites psychologists who claim that such stress disorders can be transmitted between generations. But hard evidence that this has determined the current shape of Cambodian politics is missing.

(See a brief history of the Khmer Rouge.)

The thesis undervalues the notion, proposed by historian David Chandler, that this largely agrarian society has little history of popular sovereignty. It does not do justice to the political activity that takes place outside the ruling party — in trade unions and pagodas or in the grass-roots organizations that dot the countryside — or to the courage of Cambodia’s human-rights workers, networks of whom provide the court reporting and monitoring of land disputes on which Brinkley’s narrative relies. There is also little mention of the land-tenure crisis — one of the unforeseen consequences of the Khmer Rouge’s abolition of private ownership in 1975 and described by Hun Sen in 2005 as a “battlefield.”

Brinkley has chosen an important subject: Cambodia is a country that has consistently confronted the more profound questions posed by history and humanity: Why does a society turn on itself? Is terror the price of today’s political order? Is justice a luxury? But his summaries and approximations do not explain the complex institutions that comprise contemporary Cambodia. For that, the field is still wide open. n

Gillison is the executive editor of the Cambodia Daily

Read “Cambodia’s New Vacation Spot: A Khmer Rouge Bastion.”

See the top 10 nonfiction books of 2010.

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