Brinkley cuts a clear narrative path through the bewildering, cynical politics and violent social life of one of the world's most brutalized and hard-up countries. Years of foreign aid, the well-meaning hectoring of diplomats and nongovernmental organizations, and several rounds of elections have done nothing to reform the lawless scramble for self-interest that permeates Cambodia's government from top to bottom. Brinkley's chief villain is the dictator Hun Sen, who has fixed elections and assassinated challengers since he came to power in 1985. But the author has equal contempt for Hun Sen's rivals -- among them, the former king Norodom Sihanouk and the pro-American reformer Sam Rainsy -- and for the foreign idealists who have repeatedly accepted Cambodian politicians' promises of improvement in exchange for billions of dollars in largely misused aid. Brinkley finds the roots of the Cambodian tragedy in a historical tradition of abusive dictatorship, the psychological wounds of the Khmer Rouge's genocide, and a geostrategic position that is just important enough to draw Western aid but not important enough to attract the political capital required to make the aid work.
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