The metaphor of a mirage recurs in Strangio’s well-reported book. In Cambodia, democracy is a mirage; so are constitutionalism, civil society, the rule of law, transitional justice, poverty reduction, media freedom, and environmental conservation. The UN and foreign donors have committed billions of dollars and exported thousands of personnel to Cambodia to create these illusions since the end of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in 1979, but they have failed to turn them into realities. What remains real are violence, corruption, income polarization, land grabbing, and environmental devastation. Yet, as Strangio shows, the country is enjoying an economic boom, and a Cambodian middle class is emerging. A great deal of blame for the tragedies and some credit for the successes go to Hun Sen, the country’s dominant politician since 1985, whom the book vividly portrays as a man of great intelligence, energy, and political skill—and also as a control freak and an amoral pragmatist whose guiding principle is “Know reality.” Despite a surprising rebuke to Hun Sen’s party in the 2013 National Assembly elections, Chinese support for Hun Sen—combined with waning Western interest—is likely to guarantee that business as usual will continue for the foreseeable future.
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