[Editor’s note: Joel Brinkley is the author of “Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land,” an examination of modern Cambodia and the effects of the Khmer Rouge. The book is sharply critical of the current government and looks closely at the legacy of trauma left behind by the communist regime. Brinkley, a professor of journalism and a former New York Times correspondent, won the Pulitzer Prize for his work covering Cambodia’s refugee crisis after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. He spoke to VOA Khmer’s Im Sothearith recently about his book and possible solutions to Cambodia’s “curse.”]
In some parts of your book, you’ve been very negative about Cambodian future. At the fourth Khmer Studies Forum at Ohio University recently, you mentioned two positive solutions.
I would call them strategies, not solutions. One is that, every year since 1992, donors have given between half a billion and a billion dollars to Cambodians. The prime minister every time promises to clean things up. He never does, but they give the money every year anyway. So the donor nations from all over the world have become facilitators for the government, and I believe that the donor community needs to stand up and tell the government in Cambodia that they are going to withhold anything but humanitarian aid unless the government takes steps to stop seizing homes, requiring bribes paid by school children and hospital patients, and the panoply of issues that Cambodians and foreigners have with the Cambodian government. That’s one possibility.
Second is that the democracy-promotion institutions like the [US-based] National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute have had strategy in Cambodia of trying to support the political opposition, Sam Rainsy. Well, I think it’s time to acknowledge that Cambodia is not a democracy. And spending your time trying to prop up an opposition politician in a one-party state—the opposition politician now living in Paris in exile—is a wasted strategy. These democracy promotion groups need to stop pretending that Cambodia is a democracy and instead use some of the strategies they used in authoritarian states.
Currently, donor countries do not put pressure on the government. Instead of putting conditions on the government, they want to engage the government, or give ownership to the government. What is your view?
I think it’s foolish. I wrote about trying to do that in Haiti, which is a country that is just as corrupt as Cambodia. And it’s foolish there. The government stole all the money, and people are still living in tents two years after the earthquake. It’s foolish in Cambodia. It’s the whole idea of empowering the government to behave properly. It’s foolish unless you have a country whose government intends to behave properly or is interested in behaving properly. And Cambodia is not one of those countries.
Do you think it’s possible for donors to put any pressure on the government?
If Western donors stood up to say they are going to withhold money, except direct humanitarian aid, it’s very possible that China would step in and provide the money. But I still believe that statements from Europe, the United States and other parts of the world to the Cambodian government would be a huge political blow to the government, and they would have to listen. I don’t think that [Prime Minister] Hun Sen wants his country to be totally in the pocket of China. That’s why Burma is opening up: because they found it rather unpleasant to be totally in the pocket of China.
The way countries change is [that] it’s the people themselves who demand it. And what is needed in Cambodia is education and economic development so people can have the knowledge they need to stand up to the government and demand that they receive better treatment.
Your book is controversial for many Cambodians. How do you respond to critics?
I have heard a variety of negative and positive comments. I am a journalist, and I don’t try to hide the facts. I work all over the world. Cambodia is not the only place I’ve written about negatively. I spent a lot of time in Cambodia. I spoke with hundreds of people, saw a lot of different things. I’ve been a journalist all my life, and I wrote the way I see it. I don’t pull punches.