Since the Vietnam War and its darkest days during the Pol Pot regime, Cambodia has mostly been out of sight and out of mind. It's time to change that, contends journalist Joel Brinkley in his new book Cambodia's Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land.
The former reporter for the New York Times first traveled to Cambodia in the 1970s and returned recently to find a nation and its people still suffering.
Speaking from his office at Stanford University this week, Brinkley talked about the character of a country and the iffy prospects for Cambodia's recovery.
Q: What has remained the same in Cambodia as during the Khmer Rouge era?
The relative docility of the Cambodian people. Ninety percent of them went along with the Khmer Rouge, and did not object even as they starved to death. There was a small uprising in one part of the country, but that was quashed.
Now you find a docility toward a government that's predatory and corrupt. They're accepting of whatever happens to them.
Q: How are things different now compared to back then?
The cities look relatively modern. You go to Phnom Penh and they have skyscrapers and more cars, bicycles, and motorbikes. Given that Cambodia has more foreign aid workers and more donors per capita than any nation on earth, the major cities have all sorts of restaurants and coffee bars to sustain them. It's a not a shining metropolis, but it's a lot more modern than the hinterlands.
If you go into the countrywide, people have no electricity, no running water, nothing to cook with except a fire, no bathroom except a pit out back. I suppose it's charming to see people who live as they did 1,000 years ago, but it's quite depressing. They could live better if they knew what they were missing.
Q: You write about the unwillingness of many Cambodians to develop ambitions for themselves and their nation. What's behind that?
Cambodia is quite a bucolic country, and that's one reason that its people are more or less stagnant. They can live off what nature provides them.
The historians who write about the Angkor period [in the centuries around the 1200s] make the point quite clearly that the Khmer of that era knew their place and had no aspirations. If you were a farmer, your children will be farmers and their children will be farmers. You could be killed for aspiring to more than you were born to in that era.
There is an element of that today, Their religion [Theravada Buddhism] encourages a precept of that faith: be satisfied with what you have and do not aspire to more.
Q: How did this affect education in Cambodia?
Until the 1960s, there was only one school outside of Phnom Penh. There are still parts of Cambodia today that don't have schools. In the rural areas, which is 80 percent of the country, most children don't stay in school much beyond the third grade. Only three percent of the population goes to college.
Q: Is there reason for hope about Cambodia's future?
I don't see a lot of reason for hope as long as the present prime minister remains in office. The problem is that he has been in office since the 1980s and has created a patronage system that reaches all the way down to the lowest levels of officials.
It's very hard to change the way the country works. You'd have to have a pretty revolutionary person atop this government.
Q: What do you think the world should do about Cambodia?
I believe the donors, the people who gave Cambodia $1.1 billion last year, should stand up at last and say, "We won't give you anything but humanitarian aid until you stop the human rights abuses."
Q: What lessons can we learn from Cambodia's history, especially the unprecedented nation-building efforts of the United Nations in the early 1990s?
We can learn an important lesson that applies to the Middle East uprisings right now.
The UN gave Cambodia a chance to become a democracy. They held an election, and 90 percent of the people voted. But the former and present leaders began fighting among themselves, almost as if the election had never taken place, and sabotaged the UN's effort before it left.
If elections or other forms of a change of government occur in these Middle East states, we in the West have to remain engaged beyond election day.
Q: What is the message of your book?
You ask anyone in the United States about Cambodia, and all they'll know is that they're so much better off than under the Khmer Rouge. Under that rubric, the prime minister can do whatever he wants as long as he doesn't kill hundreds of thousands of people.
This is a country of 13 million people who are being terribly abused, and no one anywhere is paying attention. That's why I wrote this book.
Randy Dotinga is a regular contributor to the Monitor's book section.