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The Roots of Cambodia's Confusion

By Bertil Lintner

Cambodia: After the Khmer Rouge. Inside the Politics of Nation Building, by Evan Gottesman. Yale University Press, New Haven and London. $35

Evan Gottesman's Cambodia represents the first attempt to thoroughly analyze the 13 years between the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge in 1979 and the signing of the 1991 peace accord that resulted in United Nations-administered elections and the country's return to a supposedly democratic, constitutional monarchy.

Gottesman outlines brilliantly how much the legacy of the "People's Republic of Kampuchea," as Cambodia was then titled, has influenced events there--and, especially, how Hun Sen, the current prime minister, rose to power.

In 1979, Hun Sen was the youngest of the top leaders who were installed after the Vietnamese army drove the Khmer Rouge from power in Phnom Penh. Then aged only 26, he was appointed foreign minister and his knowledge of international affairs was limited. Today, he is the country's undisputed strongman, perhaps even more powerful than King Sihanouk himself. The erstwhile communist guerrilla fighter now represents Cambodia in international forums and is even becoming quite a skilled golfer.

Gottesman, who spent three years in Cambodia for the American Bar Association Cambodia Law and Democracy Project, approaches his subject with objectivity and sensitivity. Although he addresses the question of whether the Vietnamese military entry into Cambodia in 1979 was a liberation or an occupation, his emphasis is on the sometimes-unsuccessful attempts at nation-building in the 1980s, and how most ordinary Cambodians were then focused on rebuilding their lives after the Khmer Rouge reign of terror.

Communism, which was never very deeply rooted in the Cambodian psyche, did not survive the UN intervention in the early 1990s, and a new, somewhat milder brand of authoritarianism--coupled with patronage politics--has succeeded it.

"Cambodia did not arise from the ashes of the Khmer Rouge with anything approaching ideological clarity," Gottesman concludes. "Rather, it emerged--after 12 years of conflict and confusion--a product of many quiet struggles, among its leaders, its foreign patrons, and its citizens."

Gottesman explains much of that confusion, which is the strength of his book. He makes it easier to understand why Cambodia is in such a confused state today.

This review first appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, June 26, 2003

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