Book Review: Cambodia´s Curse by Joel Brinkley – An American Writer’s Quagmire

Cambodia USA Vietnam Writer's Book Reviews


Joel Brinkley’s book Cambodia’s Curse – The Modern History of a Troubled Land is the first book to examine the venality of Cambodia’s current government. Ever since Vietnamese withdrawal (Vietnam liberated the country from the genocidal yoke of the Khmer Rouge in 1979) in 1989, Prime Minister Hun Sen and an assortment of allied and opposition politicians have been plundering this long traumatized and impoverished nation, killing dissidents, evicting thousands of residents from their homes and selling the nation’s resources to neighboring countries to line their own pockets, while Western donors have, year after year, rewarded the Cambodian leadership with millions upon millions of dollars.

Reading about the endless stream of lies, murders and willful mayhem inflicted on a petrified, traumatized, impoverished and almost completely illiterate population barely eking out an inhuman existence in the shadow of the world’s largest religious building, Angkor Wat, is heart-wrenching, but, as the author demonstrates convincingly, Cambodia’s current leaders are just the most recent adherents to a tradition of exploitation and neglect of its citizens that stretches back millennia. As such, the book is an important milestone in the vast collection of foreign political writing on the Southeast Asian kingdom.

But Cambodia’s Curse also has serious drawbacks and one fundamental weakness, which dilutes much of the author’s message: Joel Brinkley is too closely aligned with US foreign policy makers and his arguments, no matter how punchy, originate from a narrow political platform.

American political discourse swings between hawks and doves and these two currents, barely distinguishable for European commentators, are the compass points for Mr. Brinkley’s arguments in the first half of the book. Every remark and comment in the opening chapters of Cambodia’s Curse is filtered through the narrow gap between these two political viewpoints. This severely limits the scope of the discussion on Cambodia’s torrid recent past as well as on recent US policy in Southeast Asia.

Vietnam, one veteran of the American wars in Southeast Asia once told me, is not a country, it’s a war. And Mr. Brinkley adheres to this American obsession, what we might call America’s Curse, pretty closely. He takes cheap potshots at analysts like Noam Chomsky and William Shawcross, at fault in their assessment of US crimes in Vietnam as well as the US pre-Khmer Rouge involvement in Cambodia, while his US sources are consistently American political establishment – his most important interview partners are recent US ambassadors to the Southeast Asian kingdom – thereby conveniently sidelining the holocaust America’s troops inflicted upon Southeast Asia in the 1960s and 1970s. After all, during the principal years the first half of the book covers, the US killed far more people than the Khmer Rouge ever did, thousands of them in Cambodia, a fact that Mr. Brinkley himself mentions, and that no one is likely to dispute today. And yet the author discards this as being of marginal importance to the fate of Cambodia.

Vietnam, the country which (for entirely selfish reasons) stopped the Khmer Rouge’s killing machine in its tracks, is maligned at every turn and Brinkley even claims that Cambodia’s PM Hun Sen learned to gouge out eyes and skin people’s legs from his erstwhile paymasters, a ludicrous claim intimating that the Vietnamese engaged in widespread, willful and arbitrary cruelty after their invasion and liberation of Cambodia. The reason: America’s continued inability to look at itself and its defeat in Southeast Asia in the 1970s. Mr. Brinkley falls right into this trap.

Besides sidling up to American government officials and running their statements as near gospel truth, the author frequently quotes from sources like the IRI, the International Republican Institute, lauding that highly political organization’s fight for human rights, while AI and Human Rights Watch are mentioned only in passing.He quotes colleagues from the New York Times several times, but never mentions important work done by European writers, such as The Guardian’s Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark’s seminal piece on land-grabs.

All this pushes an often highly laudable text into a dark corner. Throughout the book, the US consistently hold the moral high ground vis-a-vis Cambodia, even during the years when Bush-appointed ambassadors get their say, men and women who were part of the apparatus that engaged in preemptive war in Iraq, built Guantanamo Bay and gave us Abu Ghraib. Occasionally, the author balances this agenda by mentioning long-discredited aspects of US foreign policy and its past actors such as General Westmoreland’s infamous quote about Asian lives being worth less than American ones. But these remarks and the mention of left-leaning Cambodia expert Michael Vickery serve as fig leaves for a conservative agenda – again and again, the author emphasizes what great upstanding guys past US ambassadors to Cambodia were, men and women who, “had come to the job with a deep sympathy for the Cambodian people”, in some instances the very same public servants who had been part of the killing machine in Vietnam just a decade or so earlier.

Sensitive readers who know a thing or two about US involvement in the region might come away with the feeling that Mr. Brinkley is rearranging history to make the US look like the liberating nation it is clearly not, and that makes large tracts of Cambodia’s Curse questionable, despite its important contribution to the current debate on Cambodia.

The second half of the book rightly blames much of Hun Sen’s continuous ability to exploit Cambodia’s population and resources on the World Bank’s incompetence and international donors’ willingness to support the country’s murderous regime, basically in order to hold on to their jobs and drink coffee in Phnom Penh’s bistros. He lambasts incompetent UN agencies and even American organizations like US Aid for turning a blind eye or two to the CPP’s, (Cambodia’s ruling party) shenanigans, but once again focuses only on the relationship between Cambodia, the UN and the donors from a US centric point of view. The EU is never mentioned, the Chinese who have played a hugely important role in Cambodia for decades, get just a couple of lines, while the British (who have stopped throwing money at the CPP), French and Japanese are all but ignored. By the end of the book, a sadly lopsided picture emerges and one feels that Cambodia’s Curse is a wasted opportunity, an important text not done properly.

Finally, Mr. Brinkley appears to have a very low opinion of ordinary Cambodians. According to the author, the Khmer are a downtrodden lot, caught between the dictums of keeping face, Theravada Buddhism and the blind acceptance of state power. In short, Joel Brinkley appears to be telling us that the Cambodians have no hope.In this context the saccharine epilogue is infuriating. Like the final scene in Schindler’s List, the author’s last words suddenly suggests solutions and hope, a silver lining for future generations of Cambodians, after telling readers for a solid 300 pages that the Khmer people have been tortured, murdered, raped, traumatized and made destitute, more or less with their own agreement, for the past thousand years or so. My Cambodian friends are not of the accepting kind, nor do they resist change. I admit, some of them are trying to leave the country, but, just like in the US, there are many exceptional people in Cambodia. Through their actions they counteract Mr. Brinkley’s assertion that all Cambodians are caught in a spiritual and intellectual cul de sac.

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