In an appearance at the Stanford Bookstore on Wednesday afternoon, author and communication professor Joel Brinkley signed copies of his new book, “Cambodia’s Curse,” offering an inside look into the difficulties facing the country and discussing his research for the book.
Brinkley opened the talk by briefly explaining the recent history of Cambodia, starting with its UN-supervised election in 1992. Though the election was very successful, with 90 percent of Cambodians voting, the country quickly fell back into dictatorship — its current leader, Hun Sen, has ruled the country autocratically since 1997.
According to Brinkley, Cambodia has become “invisible” to the outside world.
“The predominant view worldwide has been, ‘Oh, but they’re so much better off now than they were under the Khmer Rouge,’” he said. “‘No reason to pay attention any longer.’”
The enduring legacy of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, which killed around a quarter of the Cambodian population during its reign from 1975 to 1979, continues to suppress Cambodian development up to the present. Brinkley described the prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other related illnesses in the country. Between a quarter and half of all Cambodians who survived the Khmer Rouge suffer from PTSD and a study revealed that 62 percent of Cambodian emigrants in Long Beach, Calif. have the disorder, he said.
“Soon that generation will die, you might think, and everything will okay,” Brinkley said. “Actually, Cambodia is the only place in the world where it has been demonstrated that PTSD and the related traumatic illnesses are being passed to a second generation.”
Brinkley described the dire state of Cambodia’s economic development — with a per-capita annual income of roughly $650, the country is one of the world’s poorest, on par with Bangladesh and Afghanistan. The result of that poverty is a state where 40 percent of the country’s children are stunted from malnutrition and 10 percent are wasting.
He pointed to endemic corruption in the government as a significant contributor to this problem and said that Middle Eastern dictators like Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Qaddafi are “squeaky clean” when compared to Hun Sen’s regime.
“The only overweight people you will find anywhere in the nation walk the halls of government,” Brinkley said. “Many of them live in mansions the size of hotels. I did a rough calculation of the size of the deputy prime minister’s mansion — I estimated it to be around 60,000 square feet.”
Because of Cambodia’s unique situation and national mentality, Brinkley said he doubts the country will ever experience an uprising similar to what is being seen in the Middle East today. He contrasted two recent national surveys, one that asked about people’s current condition and another that asked for their satisfaction with their lives. Only 3 percent of Cambodians reported that they were “thriving,” with 22 percent saying they were “struggling.” However, 75 to 80 percent reported in the second survey that they were satisfied with their lives and that their country was going in the right direction.
Brinkley concluded his talk by discussing why the outside world, the West in particular, should give more attention to Cambodia. Beyond ensuring accurate oversight of the $1.1 billion in aid that goes to the government every year, he said a strong Cambodia could help in the United States’ search for allies to counterbalance a rising China.
“China is virtually buying [Cambodia], spending many billions of dollars building roads, bridges, dams and infrastructure so that they can get their trucks to natural resources without any hectoring about democracy and human rights,” he said. “Shouldn’t it be important to hold on to a state right in the center of Southeast Asia?”