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 a wide range of needs. That this only scratches the surface is not their fault.

For there is one fundamental need to which outsiders cannot minister—Cambodia’s need of leaders, a class of politicians whose concern it is to guide their nation out of the depths of misery into which it was cast in 1970. Cambodia needs not one man on horseback who will be the savior but an elite of aware men and women of good will and creative energy to whom the fate of fellow Cambodians matters.

The members of the UN General Assembly had an opportunity to help bring this about when they unanimously assigned, with Cambodian consent, the ultimate responsibility for temporarily governing Cambodia and setting it on a path toward a better future to an impartial international authority, the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC). But the UN force missed its chance to dismantle an illicit regime of brute force and to disarm the Khmers Rouges, an even less legitimate and more brutal rival. It yielded its mandate to the implied threat of force and took satisfaction instead in an exercise, moving and impressive, in letting the people speak their minds in conditions of severely limited freedom.

The people’s message was clear; it would have been clearer yet had the fear of the ruling powers been neutralized. Cambodians wanted leaders who did not rule by fear, a government that held out a hope of freedom from all that had oppressed them for so long, materially and spiritually. They were given instead the shadow of democracy, devoid of substance. The leaders who between them gathered almost all their votes in the May 1993 elections cheated them the moment the polls had closed, and the world chose to applaud the shadow and shut its eyes to the absence of substance.

Will there be another chance? I doubt it. Cambodia is no longer a stumbling block to smoother relations between confrontational major powers. Since Cambodia’s problems no longer complicate important international relationships, nations that matter globally have no urgent interest in resolving them. Cambodia today is nothing but a pathetically weak, ill-governed, and unproductive country that has vanished from the radar screen that emits signals warning of impending international crises. Cambodia’s enduring crisis is strictly its own, that of its survival. Nations do not become extinct; there will always be Cambodians. But their lives can become so impoverished of everything that makes a human being, their leaders so arbitrary, corrupt, and indifferent to everything but their egoism, that a people founders and loses the struggle for national survival.


Not its struggle for survival against a demonic neighbor bent on exterminating the “Khmer race,” as is paranoiacally bemoaned by the pernicious advocates of Cambodian chauvinism, from Lon Nol to Pol Pot. Unfortunately it is also bemoaned by men and women of moderation, who are instantly possessed by a raging furor when Vietnam is mentioned. The threat to Cambodia’s survival lies in the fatal incompetence of its political class, in the indifference of its leaders to the parlous descent of their people over nearly three decades into ever deeper illness, ignorance, and demoralization.

Meanwhile, Cambodia’s western and eastern neighbors, Thailand and Vietnam, vigorous nations of expanding population and an energetic will to rise rapidly to greater heights of prosperity and well-being, may suffer temporary setbacks but can be relied on to grow steadily in strength. Therein, in the yawning disproportion between buoyancy and lassitude, resides the threat to Cambodia’s survival as a sovereign nation.

It is not that Thailand and Vietnam are girding to renew the rivalry of earlier centuries of the Kingdoms of Siam and Hue for possession of Khmer soil. Times have changed, and as Vietnam has found, conquest by arms of a neighbor bears the price of international revulsion, even if it overthrows one of the worst rulers in history. But states have not been converted to a religion of international beneficence. Would Cambodia’s neighbors resist the temptation to penetrate into a disintegrating country whose regions look ready to fall into a waiting lap?

Cambodia, I fear, is past helping itself. Its future, if it is to have one, cannot be entrusted to the hands of its present leaders, most of their opposition, and the class that they represent. The country has lost its international importance and possesses only its own worth, the life of a nation of ten million. During the past century, its life has been grossly tampered with by many outsiders. By France, for the sake of colonial possession. By Japan, as a piece in its “Greater Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere.” By the United States, to facilitate its withdrawal from a war it was losing in Vietnam. By China, because having a friend in Cambodia gave it a foothold in Southeast Asia and a thorn in the side of Vietnam, a client of the Soviet Union. By Vietnam, to establish its preeminence over an Indochinese bloc of its own design. By the Soviet Union, because those who opposed Vietnam in Cambodia were China’s clients.

Will the world for once act in Cambodia for the sake of Cambodians? Can it set aside, for the sake of the survival of a people that has gone in one generation through too many variations on the theme of Hell, its slavish adulation of the principle of national sovereignty as an unquestionable good? It drew close to doing so in the Paris Agreement of 1991 but fell short in its application. Cambodia looks mortally ill, and experience has shown that its own doctors are not up to the task of curing it. When a powerful Cambodian falls ill he goes abroad to be treated. I fear “abroad” would have to come to Cambodia to try to pull the stricken nation through. I see no other way but to place Cambodia’s people into caring and disinterested hands for one generation, administer it for its own sake, and gradually hand it back to a new generation of Cambodians, who will have matured with respect for their own people and will be ready to take responsibility for them.

Unrealistic? Of course. Unrealizable? No.

This Issue

August 13, 1998