Pol Pot not so great; Western writers attracted to sensational

Details are sketchy has two excellent brief reviews of recent Cambodian news stories. The first, published to the KR Trial website, makes the oh-so-challenging argument that there might have been something a little wrong with Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot. “Pot Pot was not the Great Khmer Rouge Leader,” screams the headline, “But a person who was afraid of losing the power.” So insightful.

The second one is less challenging, perhaps, but even more symptomatic of western approaches to Cambodia. Jon Swain, famous reporter of the Vietnam-American War, has returned to Cambodia. With the tribunal, oil discovery, looming environmental catastrophe, upcoming national elections, political strife inside the ruling party, and economic restructuring, he has set his reporter’s sights on….prostitution.

No one believes that prostitution is not a big problem. And yes, Swain makes the excellent point that Cambodian men are overwhelmingly the johns (a point that was made to me more than once by western men attempting to defend their own sexual consumerism). But it is revolting to me (and thankfully, to a few others) that Cambodia continues to be defined by two images: skulls and child prostitutes.

The mixture of death and sex that dominates western approaches to Cambodia is a heady brew, and perhaps that’s part of the reason that few seem to escape its lure when writing about Cambodia. Another reason might be the lingering (generational?) impact of the Cold War, in which attitudes toward Cambodia were dictated by one’s stance vis-a-vis capitalist and communist imperialisms. It’s time to move on and interact with Cambodians, and Cambodian history, without the blinders of our own desires (sex), fear (skulls), and prejudices (communism, capitalism).

[thanks to Details are Sketchy for the reviews]


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