Scarred for life

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 March, 2011, 12:00am

Cambodia's Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land
by Joel Brinkley
Public Affairs, HK$224

Skirmishes erupted last month over a temple, Preah Vihear, that straddles the Thai-Cambodian border. This book may incline you to think that Thailand should let Cambodia keep the temple on grounds of compassion.

'Cambodians by and large are a dour people,' veteran reporter Joel Brinkley writes in his gripping, distressing portrait of the country squished between Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. 'Every day is a struggle. Life holds few opportunities for joy.'

Brinkley writes that Cambodia's child death rate is 60 per cent higher than Thailand's. The average yearly income for Thais is about US$3,000, compared to just under US$600 for Cambodians.

Even North Koreans are better off than Cambodians. The Sudanese too have more money - and more backbone. Sudan's government slaughtered hundreds of thousands of people, but rebels fought back, bringing the conflict to a standstill. 'Cambodians are incapable of that,' Brinkley writes.

Brinkley is a world authority on what they have gone through. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the fall of the Khmer Rouge who killed one quarter of Cambodians during the reign of terror.

But Cambodia 'lost its soul', Brinkley writes, long before, following the fall of the Angkor empire that spanned much of Southeast Asia between the 9th and 14th centuries. 'Until just 500 years ago, it had been a great nation-state - strong, confident, powerful, respected, and feared. But as the state declined, its kings became helpless, even pathetic, vassals of their neighbours.'

Cambodia's decline set the stage for waves of invaders including the Vietnamese and the French, who walked over the country from 1863 to 1953. By contrast, the United States pummelled Cambodia from a safe distance, ferociously bombing it during the 1954-1975 Vietnam war, in a stab at wiping out Viet Cong who spilled over the border. The bombing inadvertently served as a recruitment campaign for ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge forces trained in the Cambodian jungle during the 1960s.

In 1975, at the Vietnam war's last gasp, led by charismatic landowner's son Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge resolved to turn back the clock to 'Year Zero' and make Cambodia an agrarian utopia. First, the Khmer Rouge started evacuating the capital, Phnom Penh, sparking panic. 'Hospital patients still in their white gowns stumbled along carrying their IV bottles,' Brinkley writes. 'Screaming children ran in desperate search for their parents.'

After rounding everyone up, the Khmer Rouge herded the captives into a downtown schoolhouse that became S-21 genocide camp. There, after 'confessing' under torture to being enemy agents, 17,000 captives were murdered - 'whacked on the back of the head with an iron pole', Brinkley writes, conveying the Khmer Rouge's sheer vileness.

But the Khmer Rouge did not pull Phnom Penh down as badly as many believe, he writes: the city, it seems, was already primitive. 'There were few schools, factories, hospitals, or other features of 20th- or even 19th-century life to raze.'

The evacuation of Phnom Penh was the first phase in a campaign to purge the nation of educated city dwellers, monks and minorities while imposing a draconian resettlement programme that uprooted the rest. The measures would trigger the deaths of one-quarter of the population - up to 2 million people. The nightmare only stopped after four years of savagery.

In a twist, their saviour was Cambodia's old enemy: riled by Khmer Rouge guerilla attacks, Vietnam invaded and supplanted the regime with a puppet government, in which current prime minister Hun Sen became the foreign minister. China-backed Khmer Rouge troops, however, staged a counter-insurgency against the Vietnamese-sponsored People's Republic of Kampuchea (PRK).

Five to seven Vietnamese soldiers were wounded or killed every day. Besides, the Vietnamese were sharply pressured by the international community. When, a decade later, Vietnamese forces finally pulled out, they left several Cambodian factions fighting for power, including the Khmer Rouge, which only collapsed in 1999, a year after Pol Pot's arrest and death.

Meanwhile, in 1991, the faction leaders signed a UN-sponsored peace accord, presenting Cambodia with the chance to reboot. Before Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, and even the Balkans, Cambodia was the international community's nation-building project.

The pavement covering Phnom Penh's streets and the skyscrapers peppering its skyline might suggest the project succeeded. But, according to Brinkley, who paints modernisation as a mirage, Cambodia is dysfunctional. One-third to one-half of Cambodians who lived through the Khmer Rouge age suffer from post-traumatic stress order, he notes. Worse, the disorder and its afflictions are apparently being passed to the next generation.

And worse still, the people live in the grip of a corrupt government behind land grabs that deprive the poorest of the meagre livelihood they scrape together. A Cairo-style revolt looks unlikely because Cambodians lack ambition or hope. Blame their religion, Theravadist Buddhism. It teaches its devotees to be pleased with the lives they have and aspire for nothing more, Brinkley writes.

Cambodians seem cursed indeed. Brinkley maps their predicament in plain, gutsy prose that covers the ground in 416 pages. It is hard to find fault with the technique of the Stanford University professor of journalism and veteran of The New York Times who has worked in more than 50 countries and writes a nationally syndicated op-ed foreign policy column.

Cambodia's Curse successfully brings the reader up to date with all that has happened since John Pilger exposed the horror in his 1979 documentary Year Zero. One possible blip in Brinkley's book is his claim about the depth of Cambodian poverty - if you visit the Bohemian enclave of Siem Reap near Angkor Wat, you might not think Cambodians are poorer than North Koreans.

At least Cambodians can brag about their past. One of the most captivating chapters in Brinkley's expose evokes the wealth of the great Angkor king Indravarman III, who ruled from 1296 to 1308. He governed an Asian empire spanning most of Southeast Asia, including much of Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Malaysia.

Each time he emerged from his palace, he put on a swaggering display. The best account of the king in his pomp apparently comes from the medieval Chinese chronicler Zhou Daguan. 'All of his soldiers were gathered in front of him, with people bearing banners, musicians and drummers following behind,' Zhou wrote.

The next contingent consisted of several hundred women of the palace carrying giant candles 'alight even though it was daylight'. Then came carts drawn by goats, deer, and horses, all adorned with gold. Next, riding on elephants, were various bigwigs, carrying countless red parasols visible from afar. 'Next came the king's wives and concubines and their servants, some in litters and carts, others on horses or elephants, with well over a hundred gold-filigree parasols. Last came the king, standing on an elephant, the gold sword in his hand and tusks of his elephant encased in gold,' Zhou wrote.

Cambodia's current leader, ex-Khmer Rouge general Hun Sen, in power since 1985, cuts a less commanding presence than the medieval strongman who glued an empire together with cunning and might. US statesman John Bolton was deeply unimpressed when he and then-secretary of state James Baker met Hun Sen.

'He was sitting in a chair, rocking back and forth, when suddenly he pitched over backwards,' Bolton is quoted as saying. 'He got up and looked dazed. We both thought he must be drunk, or hung over.'

The rocking chair incident happened in 1989. Picture how Hun Sen must be now, 22 years on.

Poor Cambodia. Palpably, the last thing it needs is a tussle over a temple.