Author: Joel Brinkley

2011, Black, Inc.

Filed Under: Nonfiction

In his foreword to Marie Alexandrine Martin’s Cambodia: A Shattered Society, Jean-François Baré wrote, “At the head of the list of vanquished, I would obviously be inclined, as would Marie Martin, to place the Khmer people, a martyred people. But the Khmer people also produced the Pol Pots, the Ieng Sarys, the Khieu Samphans, the barely adolescent yothea who, under their leaders’ directions, used methodical and murderous obstinacy in applying Bertolt Brecht’s sorrowful aphorism: ‘If something about a country is wrong, you have to change the people and choose another one’–this same Khmer people, imbued among other interacting factors with a concept of hierarchy (neak chuo, knowing one’s place) that worked both to help make Cambodia so peaceful and to make the Khmer revolution so terrible when ‘the children were in power,’ through an astonishing and terrible structural reversal.”

Forget about the tribes (whose countries are now called Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam) that migrated from their ancestral home in southern China to Southeast Asia and engulfed the lands of Mon, Khmer, and Malay. Forget about Thailand and Vietnam’s tug-of-war for supremacy in this region, using Cambodia as a rope, the ironclad colonization by the French, the American bombings, or Vietnam and China’s influences. Disregard the fact that the Khmer Rouge leaders consisted of ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese and studied Marxism in Paris. What Jean-François Baré is driving at in his foreword is: there’s no one to blame for Cambodia’s weakness and demise but the Khmers themselves.

No one revels in this sentiment more than Joel Brinkley in Cambodia’s Curse. He devotes his entire book to show how the Khmer leaders (psychopathic, autocratic, and kleptocratic) and people (ignorant, stupid, lazy, foolish and gullible) are a hopeless case and therefore, can’t be saved. Basically, the donors should not give Cambodia’s government any more money and should pack up and go home.

In fact, the premise of Cambodia’s Curse is to debunk those who attributed the American bombing to the rise of the Khmer Rouge regime, which ultimately killed almost two million of its own people and destroyed its entire nation.

Brinkley reflects,

In this climate William Shawcross, a British journalist, wrote his seminal book, Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon, and the Destruction of Cambodia. It concluded that the American bombing of Cambodia, intended to destroy Vietcong sanctuaries there, drove the peasantry to the Khmer Rouge and ensured their victory. The liberal media (and I was a card-carrying member; I read and admired his book while flying to Cambodia in 1979) heaped adulation on Shawcross.

He has come to a realization that “now, thirty years later, with passions cooled, it is quite clear that his conclusion was wrong.”

In this tragedy, Brinkley points his finger directly at King Grandfather Norodom Sihanouk for the rise of the Khmer Rouge. He avers King Grandfather acquiesced to the bombing, which began a year before the Lon Nol coup; and thereafter, under the mediation of China, called out, via the radio, to the peasants to join the Khmer Rouge to fight the corrupt Lon Nol regime. Brinkley claims that a majority of Khmers, unlike their neighbors, couldn’t read nor write, still lived primitive lives since ancient time, and owned no televisions or radios. Therefore, how could they know about the king’s call to join the revolution? Secondly, he misses or ignores the reports about King Grandfather’s outrage over the bombing that indiscriminately killed his own people, and his severing of ties with the United States due to this issue.

Moreover, Brinkley accuses King Grandfather of spending a decade “cultivating” the Chinese leadership, Mao Tse-tung and Zhou Enlai, since the late 1950s.

They grew to be Sihanouk admirers and friends—at a time when China had very few friends. Mao gave Sihanouk a magnificent mansion on Anti-Imperialist Street in Beijing and feted him every time he came to town—which was often.

Again, Brinkley must be wearing blinders. Didn’t Richard M. Nixon and Henry A. Kissinger try to “cultivate” their own long-term vision or relationship with China? Dr. Kissinger even wrote a book about it called On China.

 King Grandfather did turn to western leaders for help but to no avail. Their disparagement and cold-shoulder pushed him to the only country that was receptive.

… like every American official then, Rostow regarded Cambodia as an irrelevant little country. 

As representative Tip O’Neill said during the floor debate, “Cambodia is not worth the life of one American flier.”

Given such an attitude, not that China had Cambodians’s interests at heart, who and where could Brinkley possibly expect the King of Cambodia to turn to for help? He doesn’t even mention Mr. Nixon and Dr. Kissinger’s contempt for this “insignificant” ruler of this “irrelevant” country.

Crediting the American bombing for delaying “the Khmer Rouge’s ultimate victory,” he refers to Marshall Lon Nol as “a different animal with different motivations.” He blames him for giving “the Americans carte blanche to bomb wherever they pleased,” citing his love for the U. S. dollars more than the love for his own people. “The Lon Nol government supported a large expansion of the target area for American bombers more or less in exchange for cash. The U. S. Embassy in Phnom Penh wasn’t interested in the victims. And among the other Westerners in town, undoubtedly some of them agreed with Gen. William Westmoreland, the commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam. ‘The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner,’ he said in 1974. ‘Life is plentiful, life is cheap in the Orient.’”

This is to say that Khmers don’t even value each other’s life, so why should Westerners?

To support his argument that Khmers have no one to blame but themselves, in accordance with the views of Cambodia’s biased neighbors, journalists, and chroniclers before him, Brinkley points to the barbaric nature of Khmer people, which he says has not changed since ancient times. However, he doesn’t have to reach far back into history to show such examples.

Whether out of guilt, pity, or true sympathy, the United Nations spent three billion dollars to give Khmer people a fresh start, to bring peace and democracy to Cambodia, only to be undermined by the Cambodians’s leaders, especially Prime Minister Hun Sen and Prince Norodom Ranariddh themselves. Brinkley writes, “Cambodia’s leaders, all of them, were plotting, scheming, bribing, and backstabbing to come out on top, as if the election had never taken place.”

Even the elitist and United States’s golden boy, Sam Rainsy, who only looks to score political points, loses touch with the common folks and his own party members. Moreover, Brinkley holds Mr. Rainsy accountable for sabotaging the FBI’s investigation of the 1997 grenade attack on demonstrators, which was only inquired into because an American official was hurt. Mr. Rainsy is now seen as nothing more than a whiner or a complainer.

Currently, only one party, Hun Sen’s CPP, rules Cambodia, killing, exploiting, and destroying its own people and country for its own gain. Officials sell titles, positions, forests, and lands to the highest bidders and foreign companies while they dehumanize and truck their own people out of their homes and lands. The country is corrupt from top to bottom. The bigger guys get the bigger piece of the pie while the police and military officers and teachers get the smaller piece. The peasants are the victims in all of this. They get squeezed from every direction. They have no one to turn to, because the judicial branch of government is not independent and it’s corrupt, just like all public and private sectors in the country.

 CPP  like to think that Cambodia only has one choice: pick the lesser of the two evils.

All in all, Brinkley finds Khmers as unreasonable, stubborn, and uncompromising people. In a debate or argument, instead of agreeing to disagree, the loser gets defensive and turns to hostility and violence, as a way of “saving face.” In accordance to studies done by Raoul-Marc Jennar, a Belgian who worked for the United Nations in Cambodia, Brinkley concludes that, “killing was an automatic tactic for eliminating differences of opinion.” Therefore, political opponents are threatened, stabbed, hacked, mutilated, and killed. Servants or subordinates are abused, killed, or tortured to death, as the case of colonel Ou Bunthan, who accused his employee, Leang Saroeun, of stealing from him without reason or proof, poured gasoline on his victim and set him on fire, alive. The corrupt system in Cambodia caused the doctor to violate his oath (possibly there is no such thing as a doctor’s oath in Cambodia, not these days anyways) by refusing to treat this tragic victim, because the wife didn’t have money to pay him. Heartbreakingly, the charred man died at home, in unimaginable physical and mental pains, as his poor and distressed wife attended to him.

Brinkley sees no hope for Cambodia. He sees no courageous and adept leaders rising out of this small kingdom. All he sees are fools looking out for themselves. According to him, Darfur, North Korea, Haiti, Rwanda, etc. are way better than Cambodia. Cambodia’s Curse is painfully engrossing. Granted that Joel Brinkley’s knowledge of Khmer history, language, tradition, religion, and culture are as limited as the Chinese chronicler, Zhou Daguan or Chou Ta-Kuan (1296 -1297), resorting to hearsay and misinterpretations by misinformed individuals, just like the bigoted Chou Ta-Kuan, but his findings and observations of Khmer’s problems, attitude and behavior are not too far off.

Lastly, Brinkley may have been sarcastic about seeing change coming to Cambodia in his epilogue, but it was change that brought Khmers out of the Dark Age to become known as one of the most powerful empires in Southeast Asia for thousands of years. That power lies in education and knowledge. With knowledge Khmers built strong social and religious institutions and reigned supreme. The Khmer presence still remains throughout Southeast Asia. 

Eleanor Mannikka, the scholar and author of Angkor Wat: Time, Space, and Kingship, said it best when she wrote, “The architects of Angkor Wat were brilliant and well educated—true sages whose knowledge ranged from architecture to Sanskrit poetry to astronomy to religious rituals. They were extraordinary human beings for any society, in any era.”

That power was removed when newly arrived groups of people invaded the country, looted it, killed its people and scholars, and captured those extraordinary ones to build their own civilizations. Khmers lost that power and plunged back into the Dark Age, but the good news is, Khmers are survivors. It will take us a long time to gain new and old knowledge, but we are struggling to get it back. Khmers, like the Mayans and Aztecs, are one of the oldest groups of people in the world, but contrary to them, we are struggling against internal and external negative forces to stay alive. If anything, Cambodia is blessed. Let’s educate and help improve the lives of the 80 percent of Khmers who are illiterate and poor.


Suggested Reading: Angkor Wat: Time, Space, & Kingship (Mannikka), Cambodia: A Shattered Society (Martin), On China (Kissinger)

[A version of this review also appeared on Sambath’s blog]