Cambodia's political history from 1978 to 2009 or so. Appalling, horrible, infuriating, disgusting, etc. I hated this book. I was hoping to learn more about Cambodia and its culture, but this only gives chapter after chapter detailing the horrible things the people in government did, and nothing else. No bright side. No other insights. Just horror.
Cambodia's Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land
This was 1979. The Vietnam War had ended just four years earlier, but the convulsions it caused in neighboring states played out for years following. In Cambodia a few months after Saigon fell, Communist insurgents known as the Khmer Rouge overthrew Lon Nol, the military dictator.
Two million Cambodians, one-quarter of the nation’s population, were killed during Pol Pot’s three and one-half years in power.
Eighty percent of Cambodia’s teachers were killed and 95 percent of the doctors, along with almost everyone else who had an education.
In December 1978 Vietnam had invaded Cambodia and quickly deposed the Khmer Rouge regime. In the months that followed, tens of thousands of refugees stumbled toward Thailand,
A decade after their invasion, the Vietnamese had pulled out of Cambodia, in 1989, and left a puppet Marxist government in place. The Khmer Rouge, still directed by Pol Pot, continued waging a guerrilla war against the occupiers and their government.
In 1992 and 1993 the United Nations occupied Cambodia. The state became a UN protectorate - the first and last time the United Nations tried anything so ambitious. The UN deployed 16,000 troops and 5,000 civil administrators. It ran the country for two years, and the whole enterprise cost $3 billion. The United Nations gave Cambodia a constitution that afforded the people - 5 million Khmer Rouge survivors - all the human rights and privileges of a modern democratic state. Then the UN staged elections. To everyone’s surprise, 90 percent of the electorate voted.
Joseph Mussomeli, while he was the U.S. ambassador to Cambodia, he would adopt a melodramatic tone as he told them: “Be careful because Cambodia is the most dangerous place you will ever visit. You will fall in love with it, and eventually it will break your heart.”
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 1,000 years ago. Until the 1940s, the nation had no schools outside the capital. The populace relied upon village monks who taught the principles of Buddhism and not much else. The state had not a single middle school, high school, or college. In large areas of the nation, the first schools were not built until the 1990s.
60 percent of the nation’s women could not read or write.
In a good year - that is, a year with a lot of rain - the family can earn 2 million riel, the Cambodian currency, or about $500. In a drought year, she says, the total may fall to $125 - about 34 cents a day on average - for the entire year.
At least 80 percent of the nation’s 13.4 million people live in rural areas, more or less as she does.
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 those Middle Ages huts.
Thailand, Cambodia’s western neighbor, has a gross domestic product per capita more than four times higher than Cambodia’s. The average annual income for the Thai is about $3,000, compared to just under $600 for Cambodians - the second lowest in Asia.
Only Burma is poorer, on a per-capita basis. The average Burmese “were actually more productive and much better off on a material basis than the rural people in Cambodia - even though the Burmese are under a much worse political regime.” Even North Koreans are more prosperous. The average income there is almost triple Cambodia’s.
The war in Vietnam ended just four years before the Khmer Rouge defeat in 1979. Yet today Vietnam’s gross domestic product per capita is almost ten times higher than Cambodia’s. Only 19 percent of the economy is based on agriculture, compared to more than one-third for Cambodia. Vietnam manufactures pharmaceuticals, semiconductors, and high-tensile steel. Cambodia manufactures T-shirts, rubber, and cement.
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.
90 percent of Cambodia’s roads remain unpaved.
Cambodian farmers grow a single rice crop per year - the only nation in Asia that does not grow more - and almost none of their farmland is irrigated. Vietnamese embrace change. Cambodians tend to resist it. Even now, Cambodia’s Ministry of Agriculture cannot convince most farmers to adopt modern rice-cultivation strategies that would increase Cambodia’s yield - also the lowest of any major rice-growing nation.
One-third to one-half of all Cambodians who lived through the Khmer Rouge era have PTSD. Symptoms of PTSD and related traumatic illnesses are being passed from one generation to the next.
This learned behavior is one reason most Cambodians do not react to their leaders’ misbehavior. They are silent when officials enrich themselves on public proceeds and live in mansions. They are quiet when the government sells their property to wealthy businessmen and then soldiers forcibly evict them in the night.
Today it’s not unusual for the most desperately poor couples to have as many as eight or ten children.
Most Cambodians lack ambition or any hope for a better life. Their religion, Theravadist Buddhism, taught them to shun status and eschew material possessions because “contentment is wealth.”
Monks preached that children should be pleased with the lives they had and not aspire for more.
King Norodom promised to abolish slavery and end the monarchy’s insistence that all land belonged to the crown. He also pledged to reform “tax collection,” which had grown into a system of runaway thievery. But then Norodom employed a passive-aggressive tactic that would remain commonplace, even into the modern era. He signed orders for all of these reforms - but then declined to enforce them.
The Khmer Rouge, like most Cambodians, hated the Vietnamese. And from the beginning of their reign the two states had skirmished along the border. Finally, by the end of 1978, Vietnam had had enough. Thousands of troops poured over the border, and in short order they deposed the Khmer Rouge. Millions of Cambodians quietly cheered as their historical enemy swept through the nation. Three years, eight months, and twenty days after they seized power, the Khmer Rouge slipped furtively into the night. For decades to come, Cambodians, with little prompting, would affirm that the Vietnamese saved their lives.
Yet in response to the Vietnamese invasion, the White House merely slapped more sanctions on Vietnam. Nothing was done for the 5 million Khmer Rouge victims,
Surprisingly, the United Nations chose to reseat the Khmer Rouge instead of “those puppets,” as Washington referred to the government in Phnom Penh. To the State Department, giving a seat to Vietnam’s government was effectively giving Moscow another vote in the General Assembly. And although the Khmer Rouge were butchers, they were out of power now, living in the jungle - and allied with China, Washington’s new friend.
When Ronald Reagan came into office in 1981, he resolutely refused to recognize Cambodia’s quisling government. UN aid agencies were forbidden to set foot in Cambodia. No one was to have anything to do with the stooges Hanoi had installed in Phnom Penh.
Vietnamese administrators sat in every government ministry and provincial office, and they worked to remake Cambodia as a Marxist-Leninist state.
Cambodia was stuck in a mire, occupied by its mortal enemy, represented before the United Nations and the world by its former genocidal government, governed by Communist dictators despised in the West, locked out of any significant assistance or aid. Cambodia had 7.7 million people in April 1975. Left when the Khmer Rouge fell from power were fewer than 5 million.
Vietnam was forced to reassess its own foreign adventures. The government was overstretched. Loath as they were to do it, in 1988 and 1989 the Vietnamese army withdrew from Cambodia - leaving Hun Sen’s puppet Communist government in charge.
Finally, on July 18, 1990, Secretary of State Baker announced a change in American policy - a complete reversal. The United States would end its political and tacit military support of the Khmer Rouge more than eleven years after they had fallen from power, a decade after it had become perfectly clear that Pol Pot and his minions had murdered “at least 1.7 million” people, 25 percent of Cambodia’s population.
The United Nations would actually take control of Cambodia; the state would become a UN protectorate. The four competing armies would be disarmed, their troops held in special camps until national elections were held and a new democratic government chosen.
Michael Hayes, a young American from Massachusetts, had come to Phnom Penh looking for work. He’d been on the staff of the Asia Foundation in Bangkok. But this was the new boomtown. It was 1991, and he was just twenty-four years old. “I was staying at the Royale Hotel,” where everyone from the West stayed - journalists, UN officers, drug dealers, NGOs. “I went to the dining room for breakfast and asked for a newspaper. The waitress told me there are no newspapers here. So I began thinking: Maybe I should be a journalist. I had a lot of friends who were journalists. Maybe I should start a newspaper.” So he did. With help from the UN and his friends, he founded the Phnom Penh Post in 1992, the nation’s first English-language paper, still publishing today.
The UN force offered a great deal more than the prospect of military reconciliation. Most Cambodians loved having them in town. The visitors spent money, more money, and then more money still - $3 billion in all. Every staffer was given a daily living allowance of $145 on top of his salary - a year’s income for most Cambodians. Contractors had quickly put up apartment buildings and now were taking in $2,000, $3,000 a month - ridiculously high rents for Phnom Penh. Hotels were full, and new ones were under construction. Anyone who’d ever had a fleeting thought of running a restaurant scrambled to open one. Everyone with a car hired himself out as a driver. Brothels worked overtime; UN doctors treated thousands of their men and women for sexually transmitted diseases. Liquor vendors couldn’t keep up with demand; restaurant and bar owners had to replace fixtures and furniture broken in drunken brawls almost every evening. UN vehicles and equipment routinely disappeared in the night, but no one was sure whether the thieves were Cambodian or renegade UN employees.
Under the UN, freedoms of all kinds flowered. A group of political prisoners let out of jail opened a legal-aid organization. Under UN auspices new human-rights advocacy groups began work; education, agriculture, health assistance, and a host of other civil-society organizations opened shop. Groups like these had never been permitted by the Vietnamese, the Khmer Rouge, or the monarchy. But would the new government, whoever won the upcoming election, allow all of this to continue?
So, just as his Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese tutors had taught him, Hun Sen went after Ranariddh with everything he had. In 1993 the United Nations reported more than one hundred political assassinations. Nearly all of the dead were Funcinpec officials. A few worked for another smaller Buddhist party. Hun Sen’s political party, the Cambodian People’s Party, or CPP, controlled every province, every town and village - every political jurisdiction in the country. How could it not? Under Vietnam Cambodia had been a one-party state, and Hun Sen had led it. He directed his loyalists in all of these regional offices to bribe, or threaten, everyone to vote for him. The regional officers jumped into the fight with abandon. They burned down Funcinpec headquarters, disrupted rallies, and killed prominent party officials. After all, a few years earlier, when Vietnam ruled the nation, that had been the way things were done.
Hun Sen explained, “We have been accused of seizing equipment belonging to two political parties. So I would like to clarify that the equipment has been seized because the parties have acted illegally. They have imported 63 cars without paying taxes, and they illegally set up radio stations in Phnom Penh without applying for proper authorization. And now they are bringing in television equipment without, as before, any permission at all.” Hun Sen was just beginning to make an art of these facile explanations for his government’s belligerent actions.
Cambodia then was still a pure dictatorship, with a bit of superficial UN oversight. If Hun Sen wanted to blame faceless bureaucrats following his own unwritten regulations, often invented on the spot, who was to stop him?
Washington had turned away from Cambodia almost as soon as Baker stepped down from the podium. The month after Baker made his Cambodian announcement, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, and the Bush administration applied all of its attention and energy to the Gulf War. Soon after that came the 1992 presidential campaign. “People lost interest in Cambodia; they were just going through the motions,” Bolton said.
Across Cambodia the polls opened the morning of May 23, 1993, and stayed open for six days. Khmer Rouge gunners shelled polling and police stations in Kampong Thom, Kampong Chhnang, Siem Reap, and elsewhere. Election workers fled; several were killed. But the major national offensive the Khmer Rouge had promised never came to pass, and over the six days more than 4 million Cambodians voted, even including some Khmer Rouge soldiers - 90 percent of the eligible voters. Their decision was clear. Hun Sen lost.
Only one party came out of the election a clear winner: the United Nations. For all the UN’s shortcomings, mistakes, and failures, it had pulled off a successful election, despite threats, boycotts, and violence. It had repatriated 370,000 refugees who had been living on the Thai border.
Hun Sen, Ranariddh, and Sihanouk had sat in that ornate conference room in Paris two years earlier, each conniving to achieve an outcome that would place himself on top. Now, it seemed, each of them had come quite close. Sihanouk was king, but without all the powers he had held before 1970. Both Hun Sen and Ranariddh were heads of the government, but they had to share power. Nevertheless, through all of its history, only one absolute leader had ruled Cambodia. All three men had accepted the new arrangement - but only temporarily. Each of them wanted to be the nation’s absolute ruler and remained determined to make that happen. As Hun Sen had said a few years earlier, “You can talk about sharing power in Paris, but not in Cambodia.”
In 1992, the United Nations had arrived with billions of dollars to spend. The nation was awash in cash, though little of it went into the government treasury. Every project the UN undertook offered opportunities for graft - or theft. All that UN money bloated the Cambodian economy. A lot of people got rich. But then, at the end of 1993, the UN and all of its money and expertise were gone. That left “a huge vacuum,”
After the UN left, they worried: Who would step up? Who would be the new patron, the next funder?
In February 1995, the state seemed to be falling headlong back into its old corrupt ways. Police had begun setting up unofficial checkpoints on the highways where they pulled over drivers and shook them down. Schoolteachers were demanding bribes from students every day as a condition for staying in class. And then, of course, there was the disappearing foreign aid.
“Over the last 10 years, people, especially leaders, tended to confuse their personal assets with the state’s assets,” he told the Toronto Star in June 1994. “They saw their personal interests as the national interest. This was the worst combination we could have, a jungle economy and former Communist cadres who use their discretionary powers to serve their personal interests. They’ve been doing whatever they want. They just use their political power to get rich by disposing of national assets like they are their own assets.” A bit later he told the Associated Press, “You cannot start a business here without all the officials asking you for money.” And now, with a divided government, “instead of bribing one party, you have to bribe two.”
Even with Hun Sen’s lofty pronouncements about corruption and a free and open press, it quickly became clear that Cambodia remained a dangerous place for the reform-minded. Two months after Rainsy left office, two men riding by on a motorbike shot and killed Chan Dara, a young reporter for the Koh Santepheap (Island of Peace) newspaper, in Kampong Cham, about seventy-five miles northeast of Phnom Penh. Chan Dara had been writing stories about corruption in government - as Hun Sen had publicly requested. A few weeks earlier in downtown Phnom Penh assassins on a motorbike had gunned down Nguon Chan, the editor of the Voice of Cambodian Youth newspaper. He, too, had been reporting on corruption.
During a meeting in Paris in 1996 Cambodians held a demonstration against him. Hun Sen warned them: “You can hold a demonstration in France, but do not do it in Cambodia!”
Almost 20 percent of all newborns died before they reached age five. One mother in ten did not survive childbirth - among the worst rates in the world.
Second-generation effects: He studied two hundred children in a Phnom Penh high school and found that the more they knew about their parents’ traumatic experiences, the worse off they were. “Children, seeking approval, parrot their parents’ aberrant behavior,” Fields said. “There’s also a tendency for children to become ‘parents’ for their parents, to try to help quell their parents’ anxieties. These children tend to see danger when there is no danger,” just like their parents. When asked to list the events they knew their parents were exposed to - starvation, torture, near death - “some of them get angry when they talk about it, showing the role reversal. They have higher anxiety, depression. These stresses take a toll on their lives.”
If you have a traumatic childhood, you are more likely to get PTSD. So we have children who are growing up with violent parents who are drunk and beat them. That’s the generation that’s coming.” That new generation has already arrived. In about 2004 Cambodian officials estimated that one-quarter of the nation’s men frequently beat their wives and children - one of the highest rates in the world. By the end of the decade, as more of the Khmer Rouge victims’ children married and had children of their own, the rate had actually increased, to about one-third of the nation’s families.
More than 80 percent of the people lived in the countryside. In 1998 most of them did not have television or radio. Newspapers did not circulate outside the cities, and most of the rural residents could not read. What news of the campaign they were able to hear usually came from their village chiefs, every one of them a CPP stalwart.
The government was riven with marital and professional nepotism. In a nation where no one trusted anyone else and everyone looked out only for himself, the family stood as the only social grouping in which people confidently relied on one another.
Serge Thion, a French sociologist, said it best: “Explaining Cambodia is typically a foreigner’s business,” he wrote. “For about one century, foreigners have been providing explanations.”
In 2002 the Cambodian government sold the rights to explore for oil off its coast to Chevron Oil Company.
In 2005 Chevron put out a statement, saying, “We are very encouraged to find oil in each of the first four wells of this drilling program.” Two years later the International Monetary Fund ventured an estimate. Within a decade, it said, Cambodia could begin taking in $1.7 billion in oil revenues each year.
Cambodia chartered a new national oil company, and Hun Sen gave the oil portfolio to Sok An, the deputy prime minister. The new company operated in total secrecy; one human-rights group charged that state oil-company employees were forbidden even to use the telephone. Hun Sen talked about using the profits to reduce poverty and promote development. No one believed him. The IMF urged Cambodia to pass
The World Bank pressured Cambodia to sign the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, an international agreement that would require public disclosure of oil and gas revenues.
But in 2008 Hun Sen refused and called external criticism of his oil policies “crazy.” Then, in the fall of 2010, opposition politicians grew so frustrated about all of this that they wrote a plaintiff letter to twentytwo U.S. senators, saying, “Cambodia is ripe for disastrous extraction of our oil reserves” because the government was granting “99 year concessions for enormous swaths of land” over presumed oil reserves “in exchange for private pay-offs to a small number of associates at the top of the ruling party.”
That’s why we have to try to develop systems” that bring transparency to government spending. “And, yes, there is a sense of urgency here.” Then in 2010 the reason for the urgency became clear. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission opened an investigation into whether one oil company paid a $2.5 million bribe to government officials in 2007 for the right to look for oil.
When Hun Sen learned of the SEC investigation three years later, he said the money had gone into a “social fund” for schools and hospitals. “It’s not under-the-table money.” But he refused to say exactly how the money had been spent. Traveling the country, talking to governors, looking at schools and hospitals, no one told me of any significant new projects. And, of course, the new anticorruption agency chose not to take up this case.
China became Cambodia’s single largest donor. When donors pledged almost $1 billion in December 2008, $257 million of that came from China. Beijing actually spent billions more to build dams and roads and other infrastructure. And, of course, China’s aid came with no strings - except that Hun Sen had to endorse Beijing’s “one-China” policy on Taiwan.
So where is Cambodia heading? “I have become so dispirited,” lamented Yeng Virak, executive director of the Community Legal Education Center. He sighed heavily and shook his head. “The foreigners, the donors, they say Cambodia is so much better off than in the past. But I feel sad and worried. We are falling off a cliff!”
Cambodians have been abused by so many leaders over so many years that they expect nothing from their government. In fact, they remain convinced that any change at all will be painful, if not fatal. As Vickery put it, they want only to be left alone.
The Sudanese government slaughtered hundreds of thousands of people, but in both places rebel groups fought back - eventually bringing the conflicts to a military standstill. Cambodians are incapable of that.
Burmese are far more productive. They grow almost twice as much rice per acre and generally are more prosperous. Occasionally, they stage massive pro-democracy demonstrations, even knowing that the government will strike back. Cambodians are incapable of that.
Haiti remained the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere and one of the poorest in the world. As in Cambodia, most residents did not have electricity, toilets, or clean water. But by almost every measure Haitians were better off.
In 2007 10 percent of Haiti’s people had access to the Internet. In Cambodia the number was close to zero.
When Joseph Mussomeli was the U.S. ambassador, he said he would “always tell the Cambodians that we put about six hundred American government officials in jail each year for corruption. It reminds me that we also have a corrupt society and that we are doing the right thing about it. We’re putting them in jail. There’s no shame in admitting corruption; the shame is in denying it and not doing something about it.”
Many nations have suffered dark histories that left sad legacies. Many of those same nations are ruled by leaders who mistreat the people now. But no nation has suffered so much in the recent past. No other people lived through an era when their own leaders killed one-quarter of the population - only to find that when the offending government fell, uncaring, avaricious leaders replaced it. No other nation’s population is so riven with PTSD and other traumatic mental illnesses that are being passed to a second generation and potentially to a third - darkening the nation’s personality. All of that offers the Cambodian people a toxic mix of abuse unmatched anywhere in the world. But given their history, given the subservient state Cambodians have accepted without complaint for more than a millennium, they don’t seem to care. Once, just once, they dared to hope. The world’s major nations gave them the chance to choose their leader for the first time in history. Almost every Cambodian embraced it; 90 percent of them voted. But then their leaders betrayed them, and the world deserted them. Now, once again, most expect nothing more than they have. They carry no ambitions. They hold no dreams. All they want is to be left alone.
The nation grows ever more prosperous, too. For all his faults, Hun Sen has given Cambodians one very important thing: more than a decade of stability and calm that bring some predictability to their lives for the first time in centuries. Stability is important not just for Cambodians. It encourages more tourists to visit the Khmer Rouge sites in Phnom Penh and the monuments left behind from the Khmer empire at Angkor. Tourism, one of the three legs of Cambodia’s economy, continues to grow. Leopard Capital, an investment-fund manager in Southeast Asia, said tourist arrivals increased by 26 percent between 2008 and 2009. In the first half of 2010, 1.2 million people visited Cambodia, another large increase. Foreign investment is still slow to come and is unlikely to grow significantly, as long as businessmen see that so many hands will be reaching into their pockets as soon as they arrive. For now, few Western companies dare to try.
It’s hard to overstate how important trees are to Cambodians. Since the beginning of human habitation of this bucolic state, people have built their homes from tree trunks, limbs, and branches - even making use of the leaves. They’ve taken food from the fruit trees, burned tree limbs to cook their food, lived in the shade of trees as protection from the brutal heat, tapped tree resin to seal the hulls of their fishing boats, and much more. That is why so many people looked on with genuine distress as the Khmer Rouge, after their defeat, denuded northwestern Cambodia of vast forests and sold the lumber to Thai generals. These weren’t just any old trees. Cambodia is fortunate to be home to tropical trees that produce some of the world’s most beautiful woods. Some provide exquisite-looking lumber that in appearance offers a rich, unique coloration. It’s roughly a cross between walnut and mahogany with an attractive meandering grain. Some feature a blondwood stripe, maybe three-quarters of an inch wide, that twists and turns through the tree. Cambodians call the lumber from these trees “luxury wood.” It is prized and quite valuable.
Through the 1990s all manner of Cambodians plunged into this orgy of deforestation. Patrons to roadside beer bars in Pailin, near the western border, sat in luxury-wood chairs pulled up to table tops made from one solid slab of this wood, four feet wide, six feet long - and seven inches deep. A fifteen-dollar-a-night guesthouse in Battambang featured massive luxury-wood beds with heavily carved headboards, eight feet tall. One of those blond stripes coursed through the footboard, and each of these beds weighed well over 1,000 pounds. Cambodia’s trees were fast disappearing. But early in the 2000s the World Bank office in Phnom Penh made saving the remaining forests a major priority.
In 2001 two mothers visited the Licadho offices in Phnom Penh asking for help. They were divorced and impoverished, and both said a kind man had come to them, promising to help. He offered to take their babies - one was six months old, the other just four days - to a children’s center that would care for them until the women got back on their feet. The mothers could visit their babies as often as they wanted. He gave each of them a bit of cash and took the babies away. But once they had given up their babies, the mothers were not permitted to see them. Licadho investigated and found that the children had been taken to “an orphanage run by an adoption facilitator who caters to the U.S. market,” the group reported. And this was no isolated incident. Across Cambodia hundreds of women were being tricked or coerced into giving up their babies. The children effectively were being sold to Americans. They were eager to adopt Cambodian children and did not know the babies had been stolen. Fees for such a service generally ran up to about $10,000. But the scam didn’t simply end with unscrupulous baby brokers. For these babies to leave the country, each had to have a passport issued by the Ministries of Interior and Foreign Affairs. Officers in both ministries were demanding rich bribes from the brokers, and as usual they were passing part of the proceeds up to their superiors.
“Sometimes a woman would have a difficult birth, and someone would agree to treat her in the hospital - and take care of the baby. When she woke up, they’d say, ‘Baby? What baby?’ The babies were taken to warehouses of sorts. They might have fifty babies at a time. I visited a number of them.”