An excellent though dispiriting account of a country whose historic poverty, exacerbated by the Vietnam War, remains remarkably unchanged.
Former New York Times Pulitzer-winning journalist Brinkley (Journalism/Stanford Univ.; Defining Vision: The Battle for the Future of Television, 1997, etc.) explains that Cambodia was a backwater, powerless to prevent North Vietnamese forces from establishing bases inside its borders after 1965. America’s devastating bombing nurtured the Khmer Rouge insurgency, which took power and launched the well-known genocidal horrors after the United States withdrew in 1975. Vietnam’s 1979 invasion ended the killing, but since Vietnam was a Soviet ally, America denounced the new government. Matters changed after 1989 when the Soviet Union collapsed and Vietnamese troops withdrew, leaving an impoverished nation led by Vietnam’s Cambodian protégé, Hun Sen. America encouraged the UN in an audacious, multibillion-dollar nation-building campaign. The author cynically notes that nothing impresses Western nations than a free election. Cambodia dutifully held one in 1993, and Hun Sen won. Proclaiming success, the UN withdrew, but aid continues to pour in despite a stunning lack of progress; nearly half of Cambodia’s children are malnourished. Few deny that corruption is responsible, and Brinkley’s book is less history than an angry journalistic description of Cambodia’s kleptocratic leadership, its universally bribable officials and the donors who facilitate them. Readers will squirm as Brinkley describes a yearly pledge meeting where international donors denounce endemic corruption, and Hun Sen (still in charge) promises reform, whereupon donors pledge another year’s aid.
Like a growing number of critics, Brinkley argues that raising a nation from poverty requires an effective government, democratically elected or not. Otherwise, aid is money down the toilet.