Joel Brinkley won the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting in 1980 for his coverage of the fall of the Khmer Rouge. He is a professor of journalism at Stanford, wrote for the New York Times for 23 years, and is currently the author of a nationally syndicated column on foreign policy. Cambodia's Curse, his fifth book, gives us a glimpse of current conditions in Cambodia and examines the role of the West in unstable and developing nations.
In the course of conducting this interview, I realized the depth of my ignorance when confronting the history and current affairs of Cambodia. Prior to doing some research, the words "Khmer Rouge" were about the only things I could come up with. The country was, to me, as Joel says in this interview, "invisible." Joel's answers to my questions have made me want to learn more about both Cambodia and foreign affairs in general. They've inspired me to take more time to read my favorite newspapers and to remember that, even though the world is a very big place, the farthest corners of it have an enormous impact on all of our lives.
FOR YOUR CALENDARS: Joel Brinkley will be visiting Kepler's on Wednesday, April 20th, at 7:00 PM. For more information, please follow this link.
Megan Kurashige: In your new book, Cambodia's Curse, you revisit the country where you previously reported on the fall of the Khmer Rouge. Can you give us a brief idea of what life is like for most people in Cambodia right now?
Joel Brinkley: Most Cambodians live more or less as their ancestors did 1,000 years ago. They grow or pick their food and live in one-room homes they built from trees and other surrounding forest products. They have no electricity, clean water or other accouterments of the modern age. They "live by nature," as they like to say. The paradox is that they aspire to nothing more. I asked one poor, elderly man if he was satisfied with his life. He nodded and said, "Yes, I am. Like the old people used to say, life is hard, but I survive." His view was typical. Given their tragic history, most Cambodians seem to hold no aspirations for a better life.
MK: Why did you decide to go back to Cambodia? What drove you to write this book?
JB: Shortly after I left the NY Times in 2006 and joined Stanford University, I began writing a weekly column on foreign affairs, first for the San Francisco Chronicle and then for a syndication service, beginning in the fall of 2007. Because I was writing about foreign affairs, I realized I would need to travel and report. So in the summer of 2008 I decided to visit Southeast Asia again - for me the most interesting part of the world. I made plans to visit Thailand, Laos - and Cambodia, a place I hadn't visited in almost 30 years. I did some research and found a fascinating untold story. I sold an article on this to Foreign Affairs magazine. And after I had spent part of the summer there, researching that article, I realized: This is a book!
Here's a country that was central to American foreign policy 40 years ago, a nation that suffered an incomparable tragedy during the Khmer Rouge years and then was the beneficiary of the most ambitious nation-building effort the United Nations had ever undertaken. After all of that, however, it disappeared from view. No one knew what was happening there. I found that in January 2008, when I began looking at Cambodia, the Nexis news-research service carried 3,010 stories with headlines including the word Vietnam and 3,443 stories about Thailand. That same month, Nexis carried 308 stories with Cambodia in the headline. The place was invisible.
MK: You write about the corruption of Cambodia's current government and the spectacular failure of the U.N.-sponsored attempt to build a democratic nation. What can Cambodia teach us about future Western involvement in developing nations?
JB: We have been watching the United States in Libya, eager to pull out of the conflict as quickly as possible. Well, that's what the United Nations did in Cambodia. The nation's first-ever national elections took place in the summer of 1993, and the last UN officer was gone by autumn - leaving behind squabbling aspirants for power. They continued grasping for years until finally they fought a small civil war in 1997. Prime Minister Hun Sen was victorious. Today, Cambodia is effectively a one-party state. Hun Sen says he will remain dictator for life, just as Qadaffi planned to do in Libya, Mubarak in Egypt, Ben Ali in Tunisia. Already Hun Sen is the longest serving leader in Asia.
As Cambodia shows, a nearly inviolable rule governs this arena: Democracy cannot be implanted in any nation unless its people and its leaders ask for it. Otherwise the nation's oligarchy will fight to restore the old order of things, to protect their positions and perquisites. It happens every time.
Look at Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood and the National Democratic Party, Hosni Mubarak's political party, appear to be the strongest players in the upcoming elections. While ruling-party operatives have been purged from the government in Tunisia, they remain players, well able to influence events.
All of this happened in Cambodia. The destruction of the UN initiative began even before the UN left and played out over several years until finally King Sihanouk declared it dead. "The public is not concerned about liberal democracy," he averred in 1996, less than three years after the United Nations left. "Everything is very special in Cambodia." That constitution the U.N. drafted and the voters approved, "it's a paper monument. We consider it a monument."
One thing the West must do, should democracies grow up in the Middle East states now in play: Remain engaged.
MK: Traditional news venues are shrinking. Why is it important for us to maintain coverage of international news?
JB: Most everyone knows this, but the world is richly interconnected, both politically and financially. What will happen if Islamic fundamentalists capture control of those Middle East countries in revolt right now? What will it mean for us if China's housing bubble bursts, as many economist fear, and their economy falls into recession? After all, China holds nearly $1 trillion of our debt. I cannot remember a time, since the days after the Berlin Wall fell, when so much of consequence was happening around the world. Already, the earthquake, tsunami and resultant nuclear disaster in Japan have put a chill on the nuclear-power industry in this country. Most everything that happens around the world has a direct consequence for us.
MK: We are offered so much information, through so many different mediums. What are the constants of good journalism? How can they increase our awareness of and compassion for the world we live in?
JB: The constants of good journalism are unchanging: Thorough, accurate and fair reporting. Today it's in short supply, and it is now in competition with the natural human desire to read writers or listen to commentators who hold opinions consistent with our own. I am, of course, referring to MSNBC, Fox "News," the Huffington Post, the Drudge Report and others of that ilk.
In this country we have a free unfettered press that is, justifiably, the envy of the world. But the current media environment places an extraordinarily important burden on the few remaining major news sources that continue to provide full and fair reporting of the nation and the world. NPR, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and a few others. Awareness and compassion are not possible without balanced information. We should hope that at least these major news agencies will survive.