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Sounding on Cambodia for April 18, 2011

Happy Khmer New Year, everybody! សួស្តី ឆ្នាំ​ថ្មី! I’m a few days late of course, but my wishes are sincere for all of that.  May your upcoming year be full of health, success, happiness, and peace. I was not able, this year, to attend the awesome (and increasingly awesome) New Year’s events at my local Khmer temple – Wat Munisota [I can’t ever say that name without wanting to point out how fantastically funny and smart the namers were: Munisota means (in Sanskrit and Khmer): “That which is heard from the sage” (the Dharma), but of course, it also sounds very much like “Minnesota,” which was intentional. Brilliant, good humor], in spite of some excellent invitations.  But I’m hopeful I might be able to make it to the Madison temple‘s New Year celebration this coming Saturday.

In this week’s Sounding on Cambodia, I talk about:

  • The 36th anniversary of the Fall of Phnom Penh, April 17, 1975 [The picture above is Lon Nol Buddhist-inspired propaganda which characterizes the communist insurgency as Vietnamese anti-Buddhist monsters, defeated by the power of Nang Thorani’s hair in the scene of the Buddha’s enlightenment].
  • “Aid to Cambodia Rarely Reaches the People it’s Intended to Help,” by Joel Brinkley, and a review of Joel Brinkley’s new book, “Cambodia’s Curse,” by Elizabeth Becker
  • PM Hun Sen rumored to have lung cancer – no confirmation
More after the jump…
The 36th anniversary of the Fall of Phnom Penh, April 17, 1975
On April 17, 1975, the last bastion of Cambodia uncontrolled by the Khmer Rouge – Phnom Penh – fell. Approximately 3 million people were living in the city at that point, and about 2/3 of those were internally displaced persons – refugees to the city from the embattled countryside.  Prior to this, the republican government of Lon Nol fought a ‘holy war’ against the Cambodian Communists, casting them in the role of not only enemies of the state, and of the Khmer nation, but also of Buddhism. The use of Buddhist thought and imagery to convey moral opposition is standard in Cambodia, so this poster is in many ways completely unsurprising. Created by Lon Nol’s republican regime (1970-1975), it was intended to accomplish two explicit points, one of which remains very powerfully in force today.  First, it was meant to oppose Communism to Buddhism. Second, it was meant to imply that the communists were all Vietnamese, or at least Vietnamese-led, foreign forces.  In both cases, Buddhism provides the moral baseline against which other things are evaluated and found lacking.
You’ll see precisely the same sort of comparisons today. Here, for instance, is an article on KI-Media which characterizes Prime Minister Hun Sen [KI-Media’s Number One Enemy] as a type of Devadatta, the evil enemy and competitor with the Buddha during his lifetime (and who tried to kill the Buddha himself!). The main point in the above poster, and the part which continues to enable its massive contemporary response, is the characterization of Vietnamese as enemies of Buddhism (and hence, of the Khmer nation).  My sense is that while “communism” hardly has a rehabilitated reputation in Cambodia (its everyday meaning in Cambodia is close to “Violent Authoritarian” devoid of meaningful economic or political content), the hatred of the Vietnamese as ‘traditional enemies’ and ‘haters of the Khmer’ remains powerful.
“Aid to Cambodia Rarely Reaches the People it’s Intended to Help,” by Joel Brinkley
Joel Brinkley is a journalist whose career began in 1975, and who in 1979, began reporting on the fall of Democratic Kampuchea (The “Khmer Rouge”) and the refugee crisis that resulted. He was nominated twice for Pulitzer prizes during that period. However, until now, that seems to have been his last serious engagement with Cambodia. His new book, “Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land,” has been released, and argues in a number of ways that Cambodia is doomed, and would be better off if the place was run by foreigners and NGOs, since the Cambodian state – and PM Hun Sen, especially – are ‘failed’ actors.
His point in today’s opinion piece, “Aid to Cambodia rarely reaches the people it’s intended to help,” seems to take this logic farther, arguing the position that a government that deals corruptly (or is at any rate clearly incapable of dealing aggressively with rampant corruption) should not receive massive amounts of aid.  I tend to agree, in the abstract, but of course Cambodia is not an abstraction: it’s a real country, with a real history, and the deeply flawed aid regime in place was set up, warts and all, to accomplish a real task.  At the time, it was primarily intended to drag Cambodia into the modern, free-market, neo-liberal world (this was the heady period of the nineties, when those terms all meant specific things, and overlapped), salve the bad conscience of those various actors who had spent the last fifteen years re-arming the Khmer Rouge, and creating a ‘showpiece’ economy in Southeast Asia.  While those goals have largely slipped away because of the change in global context (who now talks seriously and uncomplicatedly about ‘neoliberalism’ or the ‘communist threat,’ except for scholars who have made their names on those concepts?), the effects of the aid regime are complex, and simply cutting the gordian knot by refusing aid appears to me to be an enormous mistake.
The book, on the other hand, could have been a major contribution.  I have not read it to its completion yet, so this shouldn’t be considered a book review of any sort, but the sheer number of significant errors involved in the book are seriously discrediting. Such serious problems as the notion that the Vietnamese are the ancestors of the Khmer, a apparent misunderstanding about the government and office of Lon Nol, etc., etc., make me disinclined to grant Brinkley’s tome much more than ‘popular history’ status. A review of Joel Brinkley’s new book, “Cambodia’s Curse,” by Elizabeth Becker, is much nicer than I would have been given my location in the book at this point (so, perhaps it gets significantly better?), but she pretty much clarifies that this is not a genuine contribution.  Definitely worth a read.
PM Hun Sen rumored to have lung cancer – no confirmation
[Details Are Sketchy Alert*] KI-Media is reporting that PM Hun Sen has been diagnosed with rapidly-advancing lung cancer. The prime minister, who has smoked most of his life and who has publicly struggled with his addiction, is supposed to have received this diagnosis and preliminary treatments at Singaporean hospitals, and KI-Media has speculated that recent movements to promote his sun, Hun Manet, to positions from whcih he could assume the mantle of national leadership, are motivated by this new diagnosis.
[*I’m creating the “Details Are Sketchy” (DAS) Alert” in honor and memory of the apparently absent Details Are Sketchy blog, a wonderful resource for Cambodia watchers which has been sadly left unupdated for too long.  In honor of DAS, the “Details Are Sketchy” tag will indicate material which for one reason or another, seems significantly unclear, speculative, or even simply inaccurate because of partisan bias, as may be the case in this story]
Rithy Panh’s new film to be screened at Cannes
Rithy Panh, the great (greatest) Khmer filmmaker, will have his latest film screened at Cannes 2011.  The film, “Le maître des forges de l’enfer, (The master of the forges of hell)” is about the trial of Duch, the head of the notorious Khmer Rouge torture prison, S-21, about which Rithy Panh previously made a film.
Anthropology and Community in Cambodia: Reflections on the work of May Ebihara, published!
I don’t have a copy in my hands of this excellent-looking book yet, either, but am assured it’s winging its way to my desk as we speak.  I’m thrilled and anxiously-awaiting this volume, edited by noted anthropologist of Cambodia John Marston, and containing exciting-looking essay contributions from both established and new scholars in the field.  The book is in honor of May Ebihara, the great anthropologist whose early ethnography, “Svay” was the only English-language ethnography of Cambodia done prior to the revolution, and remains, amazingly, immensely relevant and important, in spite of the changes that have taken place in Cambodia since her fieldwork. Her obituary, written by her student Judy Ledgerwood, who continues work in the same village where Ebihara began, can be read in its entirety here.
Ongoing Stories

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