How Bad Are Things in Cambodia?

Is Cambodia the worst place on earth?

It’s a contender. Per capita income is one-third of North Korea’s. Half of Cambodia’s children receive only two or three years of schooling. The irrigation systems are so poor that farmers manage only one harvest per year, while their counterparts in neighboring countries enjoy two to four.

These statistics only scratch the surface, according to former New York Times reporter Joel Brinkley. In his new book Cambodia’s Curse, Brinkley returns 29 years later to the country where he made his name – he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1980 for coverage of post-war Cambodia for the Louisville Courier-Journal-- and he discovers how much has changed since the 1970s and how little has changed since the 1370s.

The majority of Cambodians live an agrarian life in the countryside cultivating rice or other foodstuffs or raising animals. A few engage in trades such as blacksmithing, tanning and cobbling, and these pre-modern terms are no accident. Outside the large cities, people live in much the same way as their ancestors did during the height of the Angkor civilization more than a thousand years ago. Actually, argues Brinkley, life for the average peasant may have been better then.

But Cambodia’s not the worst place if you have a government job. The village heads tend to have the nicest houses (which, in Khmer terms, often means a hut with a metal roof instead of straw), because medical and other humanitarian supplies entrusted to the village heads for general distribution are instead sold for profit. Teachers demand bribes from six-year-olds, and degrees are bought and sold. Patients seeking treatment at a government hospital better have money to slip to doctors or nurses if they want even the most rudimentary care.

Cambodia is also one of the most corrupt societies in the world. According to Brinkley, almost all legitimate tax revenues are stolen. The country operates on contributions from the international aid community, and much of that money is stolen as well.

Cambodia can be a very good place to live if you work for one of those NGOs, though. Brinkley’s most acerbic words are directed at foreign aid workers, people who keep financing unrealistic projects that line politicians’ pockets, all the while enjoying the lifestyle that comes with being a (relatively speaking) wealthy person in Phnom Penh.

“Year after year the foreign donors continued meeting with the smiling health minister who flattered, and coddled, them,” Brinkley writes in one example. “They reached agreements to begin new projects and then joined their friends or lovers at the new Greek place for dinner. After handing over the money to build a new health clinic, the deputy minister took out enough to pay his son’s school tuition bill. The assistant minister took enough to buy new tires for his car. His deputy simply stuffed some cash in his pocket. After all, government commerce was carried out entirely in cash. When the clinic was finally built, so little money was left that the contractor had to use cheap and flimsy building materials, raising the real risk that the structure would collapse in the next big storm.”

Cambodia is a great place for Prime Minister Hun Sen and top members of his ruling Cambodian People’s Party. Hun Sen’s house has a heliport on the roof. Deputy prime minister Sok An lives in a modest 60,000 square feet. When Chevron purchased the rights to explore for oil in 2002, the company paid an undisclosed amount to unidentified persons.

Mind you, Cambodia’s Curse is for the general reader, not for the expert. It’s a newsy one-volume account of Cambodian history from the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1978 to the present. It lacks the scholarly detail of Ben Kiernan’s works, but Brinkley’s a reporter, not a Yale historian. The principal drawback of the book is that it is overly American in its perspective and sourcing.

The question remains: Is Cambodia the worst place on earth?

Probably not. Life expectancies are far shorter in Zimbabwe (44 years as compared to Cambodia’s 61). The HIV infection rate among child-bearing South African women is about 30 percent, while less than 1 percent of Cambodians are infected. The Cambodian regime operates in a world of multi-national organizations and foundations, forcing Hun Sen to be more receptive to international pressure than isolated strongmen like Kim Jong-il or Than Shwe. And, unlike busybodies like Lee Kwan Yew, the Cambodian leaders don’t meddle in the personal details of their subjects’ lives; they’re too busy stealing.

So, no, Cambodia is not the worst place on earth. But sometimes, for some of its people, it must feel that way.

Paul Karl Lukacs is legal affairs correspondent for Asia Sentinel