Cambodia’s Curse – a timely book by a top level journalist


January 2013 and Cambodia is in a political crisis. I’ve stayed clear of the demonstrations in Phnom Penh which have been in part a protest about unjust wages paid by the fashion industry sweatshops in Cambodia, but to a larger extent have reflected a bottled-up anger in the face of too many years of Government corruption under the governance of Hun Sen, the Prime Minister.

Joel Brinkley is no stranger to Cambodia’s situation having first reported on the desperate refugee crisis in 1980, bought to the world’s attention by the landmark movie The Killing Fields.

San Francisco Chronicle, April 16, 2011
“As a young reporter, Brinkley won a Pulitzer Prize in 1980 for his coverage of the Cambodian refugee crisis. Returning to the region 30 years later, Brinkley – now a professor of journalism at Stanford – chose his subject well…[he] admirably…demonstrates that Hun Sen’s administration has been a disaster for many Cambodians.”

In his more recent book, Cambodia’s Curse, Brinkley traces the emergence of post-Pol Pot Cambodia and he is frankly aghast at what he sees. It takes very little scratching to uncover corruption and an abuse of power at every turn – whether it is in land development (and displacement of farmers,) or the unreliable justice system where the rich and powerful can, it seems at will, circumvent justice through connections or simple exchanges of money.

The broad picture leaves Brinkley pessimistic, and he spends much of the book tracing why the situation is so bad; drawing on cultural and historical strands in an attempt to explain the deep-seated and systemic corruption. The book also serves as a powerful, and easily readable recent history of Cambodia.

Joel Brinkley is careful in his quest to build his argument. He has been a professor of journalism at Stanford University since 2006 after a 23-year career with The New York Times. There, he served as a reporter, editor and Pulitzer Prize winning foreign correspondent. At Stanford, Brinkley writes an op-ed column on foreign policy that appears in about 50 newspapers and Websites in the United States and around the world.

While published in 2011, and therefore quite up to date, it would be interesting to hear Brinkley’s take on events since the 2013 elections in which:

  • For the first time in recent electoral history massive 50,000 person anti-Government protests took place and anti-Government sentiment was overtly expressed.
  • Hun Sen’s majority was significantly diminished. Independent reports raise flags about the clean-ness of the elections with more votes in doubt (voters disallowed, double voting and other problems) than the margin of victory.

These have helped fuel a much more vocal anti-Government sentiment since the elections, and the response by the Government, to openly fire (and kill) protesters has brought international condemnation.

Brinkley, for his part, is not fully convinced that international assistance for Cambodia is all that effective. He isn’t impressed with UN driven aid to Cambodia (much aid money goes unaccounted,) and his feeling is that it props up a bad Government rather than contributes to social justice.

Well worth reading and reflecting on.

For more about social justice and the growth of the Cambodian economy – click here.

And two other book reviews that may be of interest to you: Destination Cambodia, a Travel Writer’s take on modern Cambodia and A History of Cambodia by David Chandler.