I’ve been delaying writing this review, and the reasons were obscure to me until this morning, when I suddenly realized what was blocking me: the review is unnecessary.
You see, I usually write up reviews of books that few people read, or know about, because they are on relatively obscure topics, or from particularly academic perspectives. As a consequence, there are few other reviews of the books I occasionally cover out there.
That is not the case with Sebastian Strangio’s Hun Sen’s Cambodia. The book has been a bit of a justified sensation in Cambodian-watching circles, going beyond the narrow sets of watchers, academics, NGO people, and Foreign Service officers. It’s received a lot of attention, and it has deserved it. So a review from me is unnecessary.
But here is a very short one, followed by a set of links that I think indicate an interesting, curated set of reviews, interviews, and extensions focused on the book.
In short: the book is excellent. It is my new “Introduction to Cambodia Book,” almost precisely because of the way in which Hun Sen remains both a central character as well as a sort of epiphenomena of larger, interacting systems. The great man of history book is dead, thank goodness, or ought to have been, and despite Strangio’s (deserved and) grudging respect for Hun Sen, and this book is not a Great Man book, despite its title. Of course, a certain amount of respect for the machiavellian skills of the man is not misplaced: along with Sihanouk, he must be considered one of Cambodia’s greatest political ‘survivors,’ and both take rank in the international version of that honor, along with very few others. It’s not necessarily a highly moral crew in that crowd, but it’s a distinction of a sort, I suppose.
Instead, Strangio takes advantage of the singular story of Hun Sen to tell the story of Cambodia itself in the last few decades. Unlike any other book, this clearly written book introduces the various figures, pressures, and consequences, of the kaleidoscopic regimes of power that settle down, occasionally are blown aside, and very rarely but significantly, grow and accumulate in Cambodia. This approach allows for a truly synoptic view of the history, politics, and economics of modern Cambodia, which is a genuine feat. It is for these reasons that when a person asks me for a single introductory book to contemporary Cambodia (without further qualification; I usually dig for the nature of their interest), I recommend Strangio’s book first.
Especially toward the final chapters, dealing with the most recent events, some of Strangio’s predictions and assumptions break down (especially with regard to the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, the erratic path of which has been notoriously difficult to sketch). Beyond those very minor errors, which may be corrected in subsequent editions (I suspect there will be some), I do have one larger critique, which is that for all the focus on individual Cambodians, there is very little effort to explain or investigate Cambodian culture, and how it affects contemporary people’s choices and practices, how it is transforming, etc. Without wanting to seem churlish, but more substantial attention to this aspect of the Cambodian actors in the book would be, I think, welcome.
Strangio’s own book page on his personal web page.
Available on Amazon.
Book review at Asia Sentinel
Book review at Foreign Affairs
Book ‘review’ and capsule abstract of book by Milton Osborne at Contemporary Southeast Asia Journal
Review/Story at the Economist.
Very similar review at the Wall Street Journal
Review at South China Morning Post
Review at Council on Foreign Relations
Interview with Strangio about the book at the Diplomat
Interview about the book with the Network for Cambodia and Southeast Asia Studies