Slipshod journalist puts one over on Australian radio

[This article was not sent directly to newspapers. It was distributed in English and in a Khmer translation by the Cambodian government’s Press and Quick Reaction Unit. I do not know if it was picked up by any papers.]

Pity the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Someone in the ABC programming department must have been asleep a few weeks ago, when Joel Brinkley’s book Cambodia’s Curse was being widely reviewed. The ABC evidently was unaware that most reviewers who knew much at all about Cambodia were convinced by his book that Brinkley himself knew very little.

For example, Kok-Thay Eng of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia in his review criticised Brinkley’s view of “the Cambodian people’s supposed lack of intelligence, laziness, indolence, ignorance, torpidity, and historically-rooted corruption”. He summarised:

“The book is riddled with flaws whether in its facts, analysis or some of the conclusions. Because the author made extensive efforts to critique everybody involved, and probably the book was written hastily, with very little consultation of original documents, the critiques and supporting arguments are not strong. They are sometimes wrong. The author’s views on Cambodian society and culture are almost always wrong. His hints on Cambodians’ alleged indolence, passivity and stupidity make the book ethnocentric and orientalist in nature, even racist.”

Former New York Times and Washington Post correspondent Elizabeth Becker wrote that the only Cambodians in Brinkley’s book are either “victims” or “villains.” “The few people painted in full, heroic strokes are American diplomats who served as ambassadors to Cambodia.” In the same vein, elsewhere in the review Becker noted that Brinkley “dismisses the possibility that Cambodians could reform their own country. Instead he concludes that the country’s best hope is in the hands of foreigners.”

Becker also observed that the book contains “frequent errors … [Brinkley] claims it is ‘rare to see Cambodians laugh.’ Brinkley seemed to have shown more affection towards Cambodians than the Cambodian people have done for themselves. He confuses the Hindu faith with the Hindi language. He has China invading Vietnam in 1989, rather than in 1979. And why does he make the exaggerated claim that Cambodians are ‘the most abused people in the world’?”

And so, in its ignorance, on 14 July, ABC Radio broadcast an interview with Brinkley that treated him as an authority on Cambodia, rather than as somebody who has an axe to grind but lacks a whetstone.

Brinkley’s political prejudices were virtually the only content of his ABC interview. These were summarised in his statement that 80% of Cambodians today “live more or less as they did 1,000 years ago.” Yes, he really did say that. And he even tried to justify it with pretended observation: “Occasionally somebody might have a cell phone or a motorbike and some people have televisions powered by car batteries but they live in very primitive conditions and that’s 80 per cent of the population.”

But in the real Cambodia, at the end of 2009 there were more than 1.1 million motorcycles on the roads. This was 4.5 times the number in 2000, and the roads they drove on were in far better shape than in the earlier year. The number of cell phones was over 6 million (compared to only 80,000 in 2000). It is true that many rural areas are not yet connected to the electrical grid, but Brinkley completely ignores the major electrification projects that are under way; there are many hydropower projects being built.

Of course, it is easy to point to problems in poor countries, particularly one with a recent history like Cambodia’s. Brinkley pretends to acknowledge this history, but in fact blames every remaining problem on current leaders and/or the inherent defects of the Cambodian people. Brinkley’s basic thesis is that donors provide billions of dollars to Cambodia, but Cambodian leaders steal it all, leaving all but an elite handful of the population in poverty. However, the World Bank offers a different analysis of Cambodia’s economic problems and progress:

“At almost 10 percent per year between 1998 and 2008, Cambodia’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth was very strong. The episode of sustained growth was interrupted in 2008-09, but is recovering strongly in 2010-11 with GDP growth estimated at 6.7 percent.

“The rapid economic growth has created employment opportunities and the poverty headcount has declined from 45-50 percent in 1993-94 to 30 percent in 2007. Poverty is concentrated in rural areas (90 percent).

“Cambodia’s progress toward meeting the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) has been strong albeit uneven. Especially strong progress has been made in a number of areas, such as poverty reduction, primary education (e.g., the net primary admissions rate increased from 81 in 2001 to 92.4 in 2008), child mortality (e.g., the under 5 mortality rate has decreased from 124 per 1,000 live births in 1998 to 83 in 2005), and HIV/AIDS. However, progress has been lagging behind in other areas, in particular maternal mortality and environmental sustainability.”

This progress has been made under a government led by Prime Minister Samdech Techo Hun Sen, which is a primary reason that it has been re-elected with an increased majority at each subsequent national election (elections that were recognised as fair by international observers). Moreover, in a recent opinion poll, 76 percent of the respondents said that the current Royal Government is leading the country in the right direction.

Such realities have to be explained away by Brinkley, who tries to make the Prime Minister the chief villain. This is a major reason for Brinkley to show so much disrespect for the Cambodian people, who, after decades of war are reunified and struggling to build their country with the valuable assistance and cooperation of the international community.

If Brinkley’s picture were even remotely near the truth, Cambodia would be one of the most unequal countries in the world. But what do the figures show? According to the CIA World Factbook, the poorest 10% of Cambodian families receive 3% of total income and the richest 10% receive 34.2%. This is not greatly different from another country Brinkley is familiar with: the United States. There, the poorest 10% of families receive 2% of total income and the richest 10% receive 30%. (The difference would be much greater if unsold stock holdings were included in income.)

On the Gini index of family income, in which 0 represents perfect equality and 100 complete inequality, Cambodia’s rating is 43, less equal than Indonesia (37) or Russia (42.2), the same as Thailand and more equal than Malaysia (44.1), the Philippines (45.8), Mexico (48.2) and Brazil (56.7). Cambodia is also more equal than the United States, whose Gini index of income is 45.

Brinkley’s “solution” is just as absurd as the “problem” that he has invented. He wants donors to cut off everything except “humanitarian aid direct to the people”. His idea is clearly foolish because the donors have not directly provided their committed funds to the Cambodian government. Instead, they have directly managed their assistance to Cambodia. In fact, if Brinkley’s figure of US$1.1 billion in donor support were distributed among the entire Cambodian population, it would provide each Cambodian with about 20 cents a day. And while poorer Cambodians might appreciate an extra 20 cents, there are not many who would prefer it to the roads, bridges, schools, medical centres and other infrastructure now being built with those funds.

However, it is just barely possible that I have misjudged Brinkley and the ABC. After his failure as a serious author, it may be that the 14 July broadcast was intended as the beginning of a new career as a comedian. Unfortunately, it wasn’t funny.

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