Cambodia's Curse

The Modern History of a Troubled Land


By Joel Brinkley

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A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist describes how Cambodia emerged from the harrowing years when a quarter of its population perished under the Khmer Rouge. A generation after genocide, Cambodia seemed on the surface to have overcome its history — the streets of Phnom Penh were paved; skyscrapers dotted the skyline. But under this façe lies a country still haunted by its years of terror. Although the international community tried to rebuild Cambodia and introduce democracy in the 1990s, in the country remained in the grip of a venal government. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Joel Brinkley learned that almost a half of Cambodians who lived through the Khmer Rouge era suffered from P.T.S.D. — and had passed their trauma to the next generation. His extensive close-up reporting in Cambodia’s Curse illuminates the country, its people, and the deep historical roots of its modern-day behavior.



Also by Joel Brinkley:

The Circus Master’s Mission (a novel)

Defining Vision: The Battle for the Future of Television

U.S. vs. Microsoft: The Inside Story of the Landmark Case (with Steve Lohr)




Published by Black Inc.,
an imprint of Schwartz Media Pty Ltd
37–39 Langridge Street
Collingwood VIC 3066 Australia

First published in the United States by PublicAffairs™,
a Member of the Perseus Books Group, 2011

Copyright © Joel Brinkley 2011

No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form by any means electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording orotherwise without the prior consent of the publishers.

e-ISBN: 9781863955201

All photographs are copyright © 2011 by Jay Mather, with the exception of the three photographs on the first page of the picture insert (Hun Sen with Ranariddh, Sam Rainsy, and Prince Norodom Sihanouk), which are © 2011 by Getty Images.

For Charlotte and Veronica


Map of Cambodia

























I was twenty-seven years old when I was first sent to Cambodia. At that time, barely four years out of college, I worked for the Louisville Courier-Journal in Kentucky. I was covering the Jefferson County School Board, writing about achievement-test scores and high school yearbook sales. Most recently, I’d helped compile the fall school bus– schedule supplement. The closest I’d ever come to international reporting was an overnight trip to Edmonton, Alberta, where I was assigned to write about a shopping mall.

Still, one afternoon my editor, Bill Cox, tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Oh, by the way, we’d like you to go cover the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia and the refugee crisis.” “Oh, by the way,” he said—almost as if he meant: if you don’t have anything better to do.

At first I wasn’t sure I believed him. After all, Cox was a jokester. While the circus was in town, he had managed to convince the circus masters to truck a full-size buffalo over to the newspaper. Cox brought it up the freight elevator and rode it around the newsroom, waving an oversize cowboy hat. So I did some investigation. It turned out that Jay Mather, a staff photographer, had seen a television clip about a Louisville physician who was working on the Thai-Cambodian border, treating refugees. Mather convinced the photo editor to send a reporter and photographer there to write about this doctor and the larger story.

This was 1979. The Vietnam War had ended just four years earlier, but the convulsions it caused in neighboring states played out for years following. In Cambodia a few months after Saigon fell, Communist insurgents known as the Khmer Rouge overthrew Lon Nol, the military dictator who had been Washington’s man in Phnom Penh.

Today the story of the Khmer Rouge crimes is well known. Two million Cambodians, one-quarter of the nation’s population, were killed during Pol Pot’s three and one-half years in power. He willfully destroyed every fixture and totem of twentieth-century life. Eighty percent of Cambodia’s teachers were killed and 95 percent of the doctors, along with almost everyone else who had an education. Cambodia, as Pol Pot liked to say, was returned to year zero.

But in the autumn of 1979, little of this was known. Rumors of genocide had leaked out, but the regime roundly denied them, and a cottage industry of Khmer Rouge apologists had grown up in the West. Some government officials reported on what was happening, but hardly anyone in the United States wanted to listen. The Vietnam War’s wounds were fresh; the last place Americans wanted to focus attention was Southeast Asia. They were preoccupied with energy crises, intelligence scandals, and, soon enough, the hostages in Iran.

In December 1978 Vietnam had invaded Cambodia and quickly deposed the Khmer Rouge regime. In the months that followed, tens of thousands of refugees stumbled toward Thailand, bringing with them deadly diseases, emaciated bodies, and stories so terrible they were hard to believe—the world’s first clear image of the Khmer Rouge horrors. That’s where I was going.

In those days, before the Internet, newspapers were flush with cash, and the Courier-Journal wanted to spend all of its travel money before the end of the budget year—or risk not getting as much the next year. I was delighted to help. So in October 1979 I prepared to leave for Southeast Asia. Mather, the photographer who had come up with the idea, was coming with me.

One afternoon we headed over to the Jefferson County Health Department to get inoculations. An elderly nurse with a gray bun of hair asked us where we were going, and I said, “Cambodia.”

“Cambodia?” she asked. “Spell it.”

So I spelled it, and she rummaged around in a file drawer until finally she pulled out a tattered sheet that looked yellow with age. Looking down at the paper through dirty reading glasses, she read off a litany of deadly infectious diseases, “Let’s see, you’re going to need malaria, cholera, tuberculosis, tetanus, typhoid, diphtheria” . . .

So I said, “Well, we’ll take ’em all.”

The nurse shook her head. “No,” she insisted, “you can only get three diseases at a time. You’ve got to pick three diseases.”

“Which three diseases do you think we should take?”

“I’m sorry,” she said shaking her head. “I can’t pick your diseases for you. Everybody’s got to pick their own diseases.”

I picked cholera, diphtheria, and tetanus. I came home with typhoid.

Reporting abroad years later, working for the New York Times, I was fortunate to have all the advantages big papers provided for foreign correspondents: drivers, guides, translators, assistants. Jay and I had none of that. We were on our own, and we were naifs.

Journalists then weren’t easily able to reach Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. Khmer Rouge fighters were still exchanging fire with the Vietnamese. So Jay and I started in Bangkok, where I had a few interviews, and then we drove to the Cambodian border—a several-hour trip on bad roads traversed by almost as many water buffalo as cars. We stayed at a hotel in Aranyaprathet, on the Cambodian border. Our rooms’ doors each had a padlock hasp, but it was up to us to buy the locks. Inside, the bed was a straw mat. The sink emptied onto the floor; the water washed around my feet as it wended its way to the drain in the middle of the room.

The first day, we drove to the border. A Thai officer looked at our passports and the permit we had picked up in Bangkok, then gesticulated that we needed something else—apparently a stamp. He motioned us back toward Bangkok. We didn’t speak Thai and hadn’t any idea what we were supposed to do. Disheartened, we drove back toward Bangkok, but along the way we saw an abandoned American air base. Several cars sat in front of the building closest to the road. Maybe someone there spoke English and could tell us what to do.

Inside, a Thai military officer sat behind a desk. He didn’t speak English either, but I showed the permit and gesticulated a question. He took the permits from us, reached into a drawer, pulled out a stamp, and stamped our forms. Jay and I looked at each other and smiled. Serendipity.

We crossed the border and drove on, looking for refugee camps. After a while, we came upon a big truck stacked high with sacks of rice, so we followed it. The driver stopped in front of a crude shelter. Inside lay dozens of sick and dying Cambodians, all wearing the black pajamas that were the communal clothing for everyone in Democratic Kampuchea, the perverse name of the Khmer Rouge state. Just beyond it lay a vast refugee camp. It stretched to the horizon. We spent the day there and found several other camps in the following days. Here’s what I wrote:

Gaunt, glassy-eyed and possessionless, they crouch in the heat, hungry and diseased. They stoop over small, dry plots of rock-hard soil. And they wait.

They wait in tight lines for hours to get today’s ration of food from international relief agencies: a bowl of rice gruel, two bananas, a bucket of brown drinking water.

They wait for doctors to heal them.

Some wait for news of family, though many know their relatives are dead; they remember watching brothers and sisters, parents and children being murdered, or struggling for a last breath before starvation.

They wait for another assault by Thai soldiers who come to rape their women. Or for Vietnamese troops to launch an all-out offensive that would drive them across the border into Thailand.

And some wait to learn where the next steps in their miserable lives will lead them. Meanwhile, they sweat, swat at mosquitoes and inhale the stench of hundreds of thousands of suffering and dying countrymen.

Death and destitution.

Seven million Cambodians have been caught between the two since 1975. About 3 million are already dead, and many who remain alive could die soon from disease or starvation.

The lucky ones are the million or so Cambodians who escaped the grip of the Communist Khmer Rouge, dodged gunfire from Vietnamese invaders and trekked hundreds of miles with little or no food to sanctuary in refugee camps on the Thai border.

But what kind of sanctuary is it?

For many it’s a rectangle of hard, bare ground the size of a desk top.

It’s a plastic sheet for cover, so low overhead that it rubs the noses of some who sleep.

It’s the searing odor of sweat, defecation and death. It’s the ceaseless buzzing of a million flies and the hack of 10,000 coughs.

It’s row upon row of blank-faced sufferers whose futures hold no promise or respite.

Life in a refugee camp is hellish, unbearable. The relief worker who ends the first day wet-eyed can’t always blame the choking dust. But compared with life in Cambodia since 1975, many refugees say their plight doesn’t seem so bad.

Talk to them.

As they tell of years of horror and misery that Westerners can barely comprehend, their faces are expressionless and dull. Their voices go flat, as if they’re talking about a dull day at work. Their tales end with a nodding acknowledgment of the death of their nation and culture.

I fell ill on the way home, flying through Hong Kong and Chicago a few days before Thanksgiving. Back in Louisville, my doctor had no experience with tropical diseases and at first misdiagnosed the illness, saying it was probably malaria. Later, after getting the result of a blood test, he realized what it was: typhoid. He prescribed antibiotics. But I stayed home in bed, sweaty, feverish, and hallucinatory. On Thanksgiving Day a friend brought me a big turkey drumstick. But I had no appetite. After about ten days, I began to recover, went back to the office, and wrote a five-day series on Cambodia.

Back then, before the Internet, even before Nexis and other newspaper data banks, when a regional paper wrote something, no one else saw it. For us, we heard only from readers in Kentucky and southern Indiana. After that, our words and pictures simply faded into memory. That was the nature of newspaper work back then.

Twenty-nine years later, in the summer of 2008, I was heading back to Cambodia for the first time. In the interim I had left the Courier-Journal and taken a job with the New York Times, where I worked as a reporter, editor, and foreign correspondent for nearly twenty-five years. I had reported from more than fifty countries, though I had never made it back to Cambodia. But I had a big question on my mind.

A decade after their invasion, the Vietnamese had pulled out of Cambodia, in 1989, and left a puppet Marxist government in place. The Khmer Rouge, still directed by Pol Pot, continued waging a guerrilla war against the occupiers and their government. The country seemed unable to pull itself out of the morass.

In 1992 and 19 the United Nations occupied Cambodia. The state became a UN protectorate—the first and last time the United Nations tried anything so ambitious. The UN deployed 16,000 troops and 5,000 civil administrators. It ran the country for two years, and the whole enterprise cost $3 billion. The United Nations gave Cambodia a constitution that afforded the people—5 million Khmer Rouge survivors—all the human rights and privileges of a modern democratic state. Then the UN staged elections. To everyone’s surprise, 90 percent of the electorate voted. The UN claimed that showed a hunger for democracy. Once the new government took office, the UN pulled out.

No other nation had ever been given a chance like that. The world had come together out of guilt and concern (and self-interest) to help pull this little nation out of the mire and give it an opportunity to start over, to enter the modern age. What happened? What had the new democratically elected government done with this extraordinary, unprecedented gift? To find out, in August 2008 I set off for Cambodia once again.*

On my third morning in Phnom Penh I was eating breakfast at the Intercontinental Hotel—a far cry from that place in Aranyaprathet in 1979. I picked up a copy of the Phnom Penh Post, an English-language daily. As I read a small story on page 3, I sat up straight and would have exclaimed out loud, had I not been in the dining room.

Hun Chea, a nephew of Prime Minster Hun Sen, had been driving his Cadillac Escalade SUV at high speed in downtown Phnom Penh when he ran over a man on a motorbike. The accident ripped off the motorbike driver’s arm and leg.

Hun Chea tried to flee, the paper said, but running over the motorbike had shredded one of his tires. He had to pull over. But here’s the part that captured my attention: As the motorbike driver, a crane operator, lay bleeding to death in the street, “numerous traffic police passed the scene without stopping. But the wreck drew the attention of about 20 military police, who removed the license plate from the SUV.”

They removed Hun Chea’s license plate? A few days later I asked Cambodia’s minister of information, Khieu Kanharith, about the incident. The police removed the license plate? He had to think for a moment but finally managed to say, “You try to cover the plates because it’s harder to sell a car if it’s been in an accident.” As a reporter, sometimes it’s hard to keep a straight face. But then, being the information minister in Cambodia is a tough job.

Two years researching and two long summers reporting in Cambodia answered my question: What had Cambodia done with that singular chance, that great gift the United Nations had bestowed? As it turned out, in the twenty-first century a corrupt, autocratic leader was running the country. The United Nations, in hindsight, had over-estimated its ability to effect democratic change.

Cambodia was the first major state-building effort of the late twentieth century. The most dramatic examples before Cambodia were Germany and Japan. Both became thriving democracies; they showed it could be done. But these states had been on their knees, defeated and destroyed by war. When the occupying troops arrived, neither Germany nor Japan had any remaining homegrown leaders or oligarchs, no one who had anything much to protect. The people embraced the democratic changes Western occupiers brought along, and no one of note with wealth or power was left to stand in the way. That’s why those occupations succeeded.

Cambodia’s story was different, though the United Nations’ leaders seemed unable to recognize that. They were starry-eyed about the broad international cooperation that had suddenly come about after the fall of the Soviet Union just a year or two earlier. Surely, the United States, Russia, China, Europe, Japan, and Vietnam, working together, could make this work. After all, this nation, like Germany and Japan, had been destroyed in a civil war of sorts. In Washington, the State Department plunged into the planning. The assistant secretary of state for the region, Richard Solomon, grabbed the issue as his own and pushed it hard—even as some more senior officials began expressing doubts.

In fact, the Cambodian “war” had ended in 1979, more than a decade before the UN occupation began. An old leader had regained his strength while new ones had emerged. Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the consummate self-interested monarch who was extremely popular with most of the Cambodian people, had ruled Cambodia since 1941, until a military coup deposed him in 1970. The Khmer Rouge brought him back as their titular head of state—though he was imprisoned in his palace during their reign. Then, as the UN troops began arriving in 1992, they made him honorary king again. But he wanted nothing less than his old job back—the all-powerful monarch, just like the kings who had ruled Cambodia since the beginning of time. Now, however, he had competitors.

During the Vietnamese occupation, from 1979 to 1989, a young Khmer Rouge officer named Hun Sen was named prime minister. He was barely educated, but clever and utterly ruthless—as one might expect of a young man trained by the Khmer Rouge and then the Vietnamese military. The prime minister’s job was handed to him in 1985; he was not about to give it up.

A third competitor arose, Norodom Ranariddh, one of Sihanouk’s sons. He had led a hapless guerrilla organization, funded by the United States. Its goal was to drive the Vietnamese and their appointed government, including Hun Sen, out of the country. After Vietnam pulled out, Ranariddh coveted power too. He seemed to know or care little about governance. But as prime minister, he knew he would be able to enrich himself. Ranariddh was not as clever as Hun Sen, but he was of royal lineage, which gave him a strong advantage.

So, past examples like Germany and Japan—even South Korea— simply were not useful models for this grand experiment. In fact, the Cambodian venture was unprecedented. Even before the UN troops left, the three aspiring leaders were grappling for power, as if the UN election had never taken place. Their contest lasted many years.

The troops may have left, but the United Nations was still there, running a phalanx of charitable organizations—UNICEF, UNESCO, the World Food Program (WFP), and the rest. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the World Bank, and other major relief agencies from around the world worked alongside the UN. In fact, in time, 2,000 different donors and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) set up shop in Cambodia. As the power struggles grew heated, even violent, the government grew ever more corrupt, and the donors began pushing the leaders to live up to their promises, to serve their people.

Hun Sen, Ranariddh, and the king offered little more than lip service to those demands, but that seemed to be enough. The donors kept giving money, hundreds of millions of dollars, year after year— even as the nation headed for a military showdown to settle the power struggle once and for all.

Successive American ambassadors played their own roles. The first one, Charles Twining, marveled at the wonder of Cambodia’s new beginning and tended to be charitable even as the situation deteriorated. Then came Kenneth Quinn, who decided, logically enough, that he could do the most good by forming a close relationship with Prime Minister Hun Sen. But in Washington by then, Hun Sen was the villain of Cambodia, roundly despised for his corrupt and oppressive policies. So Quinn grew to be a polarizing figure because he alone stood up to defend the prime minister.

Quinn aside, the United States and other Western nations had lined up behind the lone remaining opposition leader of any consequence, Sam Rainsy. He talked the talk of a democrat but was far more popular in Washington than he was in Cambodia. He survived repeated legal attacks and an assassination attempt. But over time his allies began noticing the dictatorial way he ran his own political party. For all Rainsy’s talk of democracy, it was hard to tell whether he was just a poseur.

Fighting finally broke out between Ranariddh and Hun Sen in 1997. Hun Sen became the uncontested leader. After that, successive American ambassadors arrived with a different point of view. The horrors of the Pol Pot era had receded from memory, replaced by more recent genocidal moments in Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur. So these later ambassadors, particularly Kent Wiedemann, tended to view the government’s corruption and venality with little if any sympathy. Wiedemann admitted that he effectively turned American policy toward Cambodia over to the human-rights advocates. Washington no longer cared.

The United Nations had invested years of effort and $3 billion but then dropped the matter—except to continue bragging about its success, even as Cambodia’s leaders fell back into old patterns of self-interested turpitude. As a result, even today, Cambodians remain the most abused people in the world.

*In pursuit of this and related questions, Foreign Affairs hired me to write an article. Portions of this book first appeared in Foreign Affairs.



When American visitors came to see Joseph Mussomeli, while he was the U.S. ambassador to Cambodia, he would adopt a melodramatic tone as he told them: “Be careful because Cambodia is the most dangerous place you will ever visit. You will fall in love with it, and eventually it will break your heart.”

Yes, Cambodia is an alluring place, exotic and peaceful now after decades of genocide and war. Many in the West still feel sympathy, even responsibility, for the horrors of the Khmer Rouge years, when 2 million people died. As a result, visitors often smile as they watch ordinary Cambodians go about their lives in relative tranquility. “People in America,” Ambassador Mussomeli observed, “all they know of Cambodia is the Khmer Rouge.” So it’s no wonder that tourists and visitors often “fall in love” with the state they see today.

On the streets of Phnom Penh hundreds of young people buzz past on motorbikes, carrying wives and children and every manner of cargo—mattresses, plate glass, even pigs and other livestock. Motorbikes outnumber cars by at least fifty to one. Espresso bars and stylish restaurants dot the cityscape—primarily for the thousands of international aid workers who still live and work here. One new twenty-seven-story skyscraper, a bank, is up, and several others are under construction, rising quickly in competition for the city’s sky.


  • "Brinkley cuts a clear narrative path through the bewildering, cynical politics and violent social life of one of the worlds most brutalized and hard-up countries."—Foreign Affairs, May/June 2011
  • "An excellent...account of a country whose historic poverty, exacerbated by the Vietnam War, remains remarkably unchanged."—Kirkus, February 15, 2011
  • "A riveting piece of literary reportage."—Publishers Weekly
  • "A heartbreaking but vital status report on a people who deserve far better."—Booklist

On Sale
Sep 4, 2012
Page Count
416 pages

Joel Brinkley

About the Author

Joel Brinkley, a professor of journalism at Stanford University, is a twenty-three-year veteran of the New York Times. He has worked in more than fifty nations and writes a nationally syndicated op-ed column on foreign policy. He won the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting in 1980 and was twice a finalist for an investigative reporting Pulitzer in the following years. Cambodia’s Curse is his fifth book.

Learn more about this author