Stephen Long reported this story on Thursday, July 14, 2011
STEPHEN LONG: Cambodia is one of the world's poorest nations. At least 30 per cent of the population live on less than a dollar a day.
The Australian Government gives over $64 million in aid to Cambodia every year - the world, more than a billion. But how much of that actually gets to the Cambodian people?
Joel Brinkley is the author of a new book called Cambodia's Curse. He says Cambodia's leaders are murderous kleptocrats who pocket most foreign aid, while selling the nation's rice crop for the own gain, and leaving their people to starve, as the world turns a blind eye.
Joel Brinkley spoke to me from his home in California.
JOEL BRINKLEY: Cambodia is an oddity in that 80 per cent of people who live in the country live in the countryside with no electricity, no clean water, no radio, not television. They live more or less as they did 1,000 years ago.
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.
STEPHEN LONG: One of the things that moved me in your articles was the description of the plight of the children.
JOEL BRINKLEY: Well, 40 per cent of the nation's children grow up stunted. And I met some of these children as I travelled round the country; it almost brought tears to my eyes. I've been a journalist all my life and seen some horrible things but that was among the more horrible things I've seen. Children who are destined to grow up weak, short and not very smart because their parents are unable to take care of them when they're little.
STEPHEN LONG: What happens then to the more than $1 billion a year in aid that the international community gives to Cambodia?
JOEL BRINKLEY: Every year the government stages a donor conference at which donors pronounce how much they're going to give each year. But first ambassadors from your country and mine stand up and declare that they want the government to clean up corruption, to end land seizures and a variety of other things. The government every year promises to take care of all of it.
The conference ends, the donors give them, last year $1.1 billion and then the government dips gallon buckets into the money and builds themselves mansions and expensive cars and everything goes on as it was before. Nothing changes and then the donors come back and do it all again next year.
STEPHEN LONG: You describe Hun Sen, the Cambodian prime minister as a murderous kleptocrat, extending his personal wealth at the expense of the people. Why then is there so little attention to the plight of Cambodia today?
JOEL BRINKLEY: You know, you ask anybody in western nations about Cambodia and all they know is the Khmer Rouge. That's a curse for the country today because if the world's standard for Cambodia is the horrors of the Khmer Rouge then starving a few hundred people to death every year, failing to provide health care, that's nothing compared to killing a quarter of the nation's population in three-and-a-half years.
You know we in the west focus our attentions on North Korea and Iran and in Asia and China and a little bit on Vietnam. Cambodia's a little place and the kleptocrats who run Cambodia like that they are forgotten because then they can get away with the thievery and murder and nobody notices. And the ambassadors who represent western countries in Cambodia, they plainly told me, and I spoke to several, Washington, London, the other capitals don't listen to us. They don't really care.
STEPHEN LONG: What do you think that the governments and the NGOs, providing more than a billion dollars in aid a year to Cambodia, should do?
JOEL BRINKLEY: Well I have a couple of prescriptions. One, Cambodia generates about half a billion dollars a year as its budget, the donors give them more than double that, which gives them plenty of money to steal. If the donors and the western governments that support them want to see change in Cambodia then they need to stand up at the next donor conference and tell Hun Sen and his minions we are not going to give you anything but humanitarian aid direct to the people until you stop abusing your people and stealing their land.
STEPHEN LONG: Some NGOs and government officials would respond that there's a trickle down and at least some of that money gets to the people in need, despite the corruption.
JOEL BRINKLEY: Well that's true but at the same time that some of the money gets to the people, they are the facilitators for the corruption that is endemic across the country because they provide the money. So as long as they're continuing to give money that they know will be stolen, there's no incentive for the government to do anything.
STEPHEN LONG: Why the reluctance to change? Why the reluctance to withhold donor money?
JOEL BRINKLEY: Well you have to remember that in every country donors have all these employees who live there and work there and living in Cambodia's pretty nice - you can rent a big house and have servants for almost no money. If they suddenly stood and said we're not going to give you money this year then they'd have to move away.
STEPHEN LONG: It's a very pessimistic portrait; is there any hope of change that will benefit the lives of the Cambodian people that you can see?
JOEL BRINKLEY: for the first time in the last few years Cambodia has young people who have graduated from college and realise that things are not right, that their country needs to change.
The problem for now is if they stand up and try to become an opposition leader, Hun Sen will arrange to have them killed. Change will come but I think it's going to be a while. I think we're not going to see much change until Hun Sen retires or dies.
STEPHEN LONG: Joel Brinkley, the author of Cambodia's Curse.