Only by comparison with the worst that Cambodia has suffered since it was plunged into the Indochina war in 1970 can the notion of progress be applied at all to this tormented country. The four calamitous years of Pol Pot’s rule by maniacal murderers, who extinguished or damaged forever the lives of untold numbers of their own people, blighted Cambodian society and culture and shattered the bases of its economic survival. They established a nadir so low that any change meant an improvement. But some two decades have passed since those brief days of hope when Cambodia emerged from the Khmer Rouge nightmare, thanks to the Vietnamese invasion in 1978 and conquest in early 1979. And today, what is the condition of the country, now numbering more than ten million people?
Today’s Cambodia is a basket case. It is a country that hardly nourishes and barely teaches its ever-increasing population, nor does it bind its multiple wounds or cure its many ills. In large measure its workers are exploited, its women ill-used, its children unprotected, its soil studded with treacherous land mines primed to kill. No equitable rule of law or impartial justice shelters Cambodians against a mean-spirited establishment of political and economic power, a cabal, dominated by Prime Minister Hun Sen, that is blind and deaf to the crying needs of an abused people. Their leaders’ passions are private: to expand their might and riches. Unlike most politicians elsewhere, they do not even profess high ideals that they then betray. The betterment of the lot of the people whom they govern is rarely even the object of the customary lip service paid by holders of power all over the world. Cambodia’s politicians scarcely pretend to serve the Cambodian people.
While those who rule over Cambodians still professed communism, their dogma obliged them to mouth the eternal verities of that religion. Since their respective Chinese and Russian patrons deserted them, they have foresworn the Communist creed in favor of greed, of open, unvarnished avidity. But they have retained the crude methods by which they ruled in the Communist years—terror, torture, and the gun. The democratic innovations that the United Nations installed or encouraged when it organized elections in the early 1990s have worn so thin that they no longer serve even as a threadbare cover for the rulers’ disdain for the people or their ruthless resort to brute force against one another. The political settlement to which Sihanouk, Hun Sen, and other leaders committed themselves before the world in 1991 is dead.
The well-being of Cambodians, their constant struggle for food and shelter, health and education, is left in their own hands. Their government ignores their plight without apology. What little help and protection reaches Cambodians comes mainly from outside sources—aid of all kinds from foreign governments, international organizations, and private volunteer groups. Few countries are host to so many of the world’s organizations of benevolence as Cambodia is, and they attend helpfully to …