Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Non-Fiction Review/Reflection: Western Imperialism and Cambodia's Curse by Joel Brinkley

If you are wondering why I haven't posted much in the last month, it's because I've been on holiday in Vietnam and Cambodia. It's prompted some thinking about the way I've seen Cambodia represented, and how this reflects on our society more then it does on theirs.  

Cambodia is not a country that sits high in the West's consciousness; it conjures up little more than images of Angkor Wat and a vague yet still horrifying knowledge of the Khmer Rouge years. It is also on our radar, at least in Australia, as a destination for backpackers and voluntourists. Visiting orphanages while travelling Cambodia has become highly popular, spawning a backlash from governments, NGOs and the media who are concerned about the booming industry of fake orphanages which separate children from their parents and institutionalise them for the benefit of Western visitors. UNICEF estimates that only one in every five children in Cambodian 'orphanages' is actually parentless. While in Cambodia, I came across these UNICEF-branded ads often - in restaurants, fair trade shops, even on the backs of toilet doors:

If I had not read Cambodia's Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Joel Brinkley prior to entering Cambodia, the significance of many little things, such as these posters, would have passed me by. I can't rate Cambodia's Curse as a book; as a romance reader who likes feel-good reads, I have no way to judge it or even articulate my feelings that well. It's interesting and disturbing on a lot of different levels, first and foremost in the content it discusses but also in a more subtle way, in the way it reveals the ongoing legacy of centuries of colonialism and Western cultural imperialism.

For example, in the introduction Brinkley declares "Cambodia is the only place where the bulk of the nation, more than three-quarters of its people, still lives more or less as they did 1,000 years ago", citing both elements of Khmer culture, which I will discuss later, and a lack of 'modern' infrastructure as his evidence for this statement. However, I would posit that any claim that a culture or nation is static should be taken with a grain of salt. By their very definition, cultures are dynamic things, constantly undergoing processes of change, growth and reconciliation with outside beliefs and practices. The idea of non-Western cultures as timeless is a pervasive one, and although we have discursively seperated it from its roots, it still has the power to breed race hierarchies and binaries. 

At times it seemed as though Brinkley's entire thesis was built solely around this
 latent cultural imperialism. His key point is that Cambodia is inherently susceptible to corruption and other societal ills, which he sees as the natural progression of the age-old system of patronage described below: 
Unequal exchanges between the wealthy and powerful and the poorer and dependent are referred to as patron-client relationships. Both sides provide goods and services to the other. The patron possesses superior power and influence and uses them to assist his clients. The clients in return provide smaller services and loyalty over an extended period of time. The relationship is complementary, with both sides benefiting. The client is protected and assured a minimum level of subsistence. The patron in turn has followers, who serve to increase his power....For Khmer, as for Thais, the norm of reciprocity, the moral underpinnings of the system, are found in Buddhist notions of merit, karma and dharma. A leader is born into his advantageous position because of meritorious action in previous lives, this is his karma. This leader should then fulfill his dharma, or prescribed duty as a person of this status, by acting as a generous and righteous leader. He therefore redistributes goods and provides protection to those in his care. -  J. Ledgerwood, 'Understanding Cambodia: Social Hierarchy, Patron-Client Relationships and Power'
Brinkley contends that, when these relationships are transposed on to the present day, they breed corruption and widen the divide between rich and poor as patrons take more and more, and return less and less benefits to their clients. At first, it seems a fairly sound judgement, but when combined with the aforementioned idea of a changeless culture, it leads to conclusions that I feel are misguided and which play down the role the outside world - particularly the West - has exerted on Cambodia.  

Brinkley introduces the reader to his thesis about patronage with another sweeping statement: "far more than almost any other state, modern Cambodia is a product of customs and practices set in stone a millenium ago" (loc. 420). To him, the Khmer tradition of patronage has made the Cambodian people passive and apathetic, unable or unwilling to help themselves. This is a puzzling conclusion. If the Cambodian people shy away from upsetting the status quo, surely one cannot underestimate the way foreign powers and their ideologies have continually buffeted the nation around throughout the 20th century. 

Shortly after the end of the French colonial occupation, Cambodia came to the attention of the West as an adjunct to the Vietnam War, when it was suspected that the Viet Cong were moving supplies over the border. The USA and her allies dropped 2,756,941 tons of bombs on Cambodia during the Vietnam War - more than all the combined Allies dropped in World War II - and supported an erractic would-be dictator. In consequence, Cambodians fled to the forests and joined the emerging Khmer Rouge, as the deposed king urged them to do. The Chinese also provided military and financial support against the American-backed regime. 

When the Khmer Rouge began to seize control of rural areas and refugees began to bring horrible stories over the borders, the US was convinced, in that black-and-white way of Cold War thinking, that it was offshoots of the Vietnamese communists who were responsible. However, even if the refugees had been believed, there is nothing to say that intervention would have been more forthcoming; 1976 was an election year in the US, and, after the Fall of Saigon, the Western nations wouldn't have touched South East Asia with a barge pole. The Iran Hostage Crisis commandeered the world's attention, and when Vietnam could no longer countenance the masses of people fleeing, they invaded and deposed the Khmer Rouge, installing a government largely constituted of former Khmer Rouge commanders who had seen the way the wind was blowing and defected. Given the choice between awarding Cambodia's seat in the General Assembly to Vietnamese puppets or the Khmer Rouge, the UN - guided by the US - chose the Khmer Rouge, relegitimising them and helping them retain de facto control over large swaths of the country. 

When civil war broke out, the US, Vietnam, China and the USSR all armed different factions in the power struggle. After blithely ignoring the Khmer Rouge years and subsequent decades of unrest, the UN finally sat up and took notice in the 1990s, buoyed by a new faith in people-power after the collapse of the USSR and Eastern Bloc. They formed a special body, UNTAC, and threw $1.6 billion at the 'problem' that was Cambodia in the most ambitious state-building program since post-WWII Germany. Then, after only eighteen months and while a coalition government was still being formed, UNTAC was downsized and then dismantled, the UN chastened by its failure to prevent genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia.

Do not get me wrong, Brinkley covers all of what I have laid out above, and there are many more instances of foreign intervention in Cambodian affairs littered throughout his book, but he constantly comes back to this idea that Khmer culture itself is responsible for the situation in which the nation finds itself. It's a conclusion that, to me, doesn't hold up under examination.  

Ultimately fatalistic about the country's chances of betterment, Brinkley quotes many aid workers and foreign officials who lament that progress is not being made. They all say it is the fault of the government, and bemoan the Cambodian people for not being suitably outraged to affect change. An ex-US ambassador, also quoted by Brinkley, used 
to warn colleauges to "be careful, because Cambodia is the most dangerous place you will ever visit. You will fall in love with it, and eventually it will break your heart". Looking back over quotes such as these in the writing of this piece, I was put in mind of a verse by Kipling, the poster child of imperialism, that was included in an English textbook I taught out of in India:

Take up the White Man's burden 
The savage wars of peace-
Fill full the mouth of Famine
And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
The end for others sought,
Watch sloth and heathen folly
Bring all your hopes to nought. 
                        The White Man's Burden by Rudyard Kipling

The analogy might seem a bit extreme at first, but if you take out the first line and the reference to heathens - the two elements at which people are most likely to recoil - the sentiment is remarkably similar to that of Brinkley and his interviewees. And I am not alone in my assessment of the book; one reviewer on Goodreads says that he seems "replused by everything he is reporting", utilising "colonial overtones". Even Joel Whitney, writing for the New York Times says: 
...given Washington's role today in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, it might have been braver if he [Brinkley] had chosen to hold Americans, and not just Cambodians, accountable for the suffering he so movingly describes.
And therein is the essensce of my problem with Cambodia's Curse. It's not necessarily that Brinkley puts forward a thesis with which I disagree, but the way this contributes to hegemonic discourses about 'the West and the rest' that continue to dominate foreign relations between nations and determine their place in the global community. 

But to give credit where credit is due, Brinkley's book has a truly astounding collection of statistics, and I've included some below as a final aside to give some context on the situation in Cambodia, to which I have unspecifically referred throughout this piece: 
  • In 2009, Cambodia's average per capita income was between 500-600 USD, while a third of all Cambodians lived on less than 1 US dollar a day (Cambodian Human Rights and Development Assosciation, cited loc. 4949) 
  • 42% of all children suffer from stunting, while the national average life expectancy is only 61. (Cambodian Human Rights and Development Assosciation, cited loc. 4949) 
  • Only 20% of all rural Cambodians have access to toilets or clean water (Cambodian Human Rights and Development Assosciation, cited loc. 4949) 
  • Again of 2009, 1 of every 185 pregnant women died in childbirth (UN, cited loc. 4080), and 1 child in 10 died before the age of five (unreferenced source, cited loc. 3011)
  • Around 1.5 million Cambodians are food insecure, unable to get enough food to supply 2000 calories a day (World Food Program in Cambodia, cited loc. 3355).  However, as of 2009, the nation produced an rice surplus of 2.5 million tons, which the government sold to Vietnam, Thailand and others (unreferenced source, cited loc. 3348).
  • In 2004, it is estimated government officials stole up to $500 million, around half of the state's annual budget and the same amount as that collected from tax and other internal revenue streams (the other half of the budget coming from foreign government and NGO donations) (unnamed US Embassy report, cited loc. 2980)
  • During the UN state-building intervention in Cambodia from 1992-3, each UN employee was given a daily living allowance of $145 USD in addition to his or her salary, equivalent to a year's income for most Cambodians (unreferenced source, cited loc. 1308). In the same one year period, the number of sex workers in Cambodia tripled (Crochet 1997; not cited in Brinkley)
  • From studies conducted in the early 2000s, it is estimated that around 47% of all Cambodians have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or symptoms of other psychotic conditions (M. Sothara, cited loc. 2295).  
  • As of 2004, it was estimated that one-quarter of all Cambodian men regularly beat their wives and children. At the end of the decade, it had risen to one-third (unnamed Cambodian government report, cited loc. 2310). It is suggested this is a result of the nation's widespread PTSD, which is now being passed on to a new generation who have grown up with dysfunctional and possibly abusive parents defined by the trauma they suffered under the Khmer Rouge (Reicherter, ctied loc. 2306). 

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