Ask any Cambodian leader why the nation remains so stagnant while most of its neighbors prosper, and he will blame the Khmer Rouge years. “We are a war-torn country just now standing up from the ashes,” Nam Tum, chairman of the provincial council in Kampong Thom Province, said in 2009, echoing similar remarks by dozens of officials, thirty years after the Khmer Rouge fell from power. In Phnom Penh at that time, the United Nations and Cambodia were putting several Khmer Rouge leaders on trial. But so much time had passed that the leaders were old and frail. Some of them were likely to pass away before they could stand trial. Pol Pot was already long dead.
At the same time, though, Vietnam’s experience over the same period complicates Nam Tum’s argument. Vietnam suffered a devastating war with the United States in the 1960s and ’70s that killed 3 million Vietnamese and destroyed most of the nation’s infrastructure, just as the Khmer Rouge (and the American bombing of eastern provinces) did in Cambodia.
The war in Vietnam ended just four years before the Khmer Rouge defeat in 1979. Yet today Vietnam’s gross domestic product per capita is almost ten times higher than Cambodia’s. Only 19 percent of the economy is based on agriculture, compared to more than one-third for Cambodia. Vietnam manufactures pharmaceuticals, semiconductors, and high-tensile steel. Cambodia manufactures T-shirts, rubber, and cement. Life expectancy in Vietnam stands at seventy-four years. In Cambodia it is sixty-one, one of the lowest in the world. (In the United States it is seventy-eight years.) [But see Note 1 below.]
Most Vietnamese students stay in school until at least the tenth grade. By the tenth grade in Cambodia, all but 13 percent of the students have dropped out. Vietnam’s national literacy rate is above 90 percent. UN agencies say that Cambodia’s hovers around 70 percent, though available evidence suggests that may be far too generous. Most Cambodians over thirty-five or forty years of age have had little if any schooling at all. The explanations behind these and many other cultural and economic disparities lie in part in the nations’ origins. Vietnamese are ancestors of the Chinese, while Cambodians emigrated from the Indian subcontinent. [Not! Emphasis added. See Note 2 below.] From China, the Vietnamese inherited a hunger for education, a drive to succeed—attitudes that Cambodian culture discourages.
Author David Ayres wrote in his book on Cambodian education, Anatomy of a Crisis, that in Vietnam, “traditional education provided an avenue for social mobility through the arduous series of mandarin examinations.” In contrast, “Cambodia’s traditional education system had always reinforced the concept of helplessness, the idea that a person was unable to determine their position in society.” Village monks taught children that, after they left the pagoda school when they were seven or eight years old, their only course was to make their life in the rice paddies, as everyone in their family had done for generations.
The two nations have fought wars from their earliest days, when the Vietnamese were known as the Champa [Not! Emphasis added. See Note 3 below.] and lived only in the North of the country. The rich, fertile Mekong Delta in the South was part of Cambodia for centuries—until June 4, 1949, in fact, when France, which was occupying both nations, simply awarded the territory to Vietnam. And North Vietnam, where most Vietnamese lived, early in the nation’s history, was not blessed with the same fertile abundance as Cambodia. As a result, the Vietnamese never acquired a dependence on “living by nature.”
Even with Vietnam’s fertile South, an accident of nature has always given Cambodia an advantage. The Tonle Sap lake sits at the center of the nation, and a river flowing from it merges with the Mekong River, just north of Phnom Penh. Each spring, when the Mekong swells, its current is so strong that it forces the Tonle Sap River to reverse course, carrying tons of rich and fertile mud, as well as millions of young fish, back up to the lake. When the lake floods, it deposits new, rich soil on thousands upon thousands of acres around its perimeter. The fish provide meals for millions of people through the year. Cambodian civilization was born on the shores of the Tonle Sap. The wonder and reliability of this natural phenomenon still encourage many Cambodians to “live by nature.” Even now, many Cambodians say they have no need for society’s modern inducements.
Notes: Brinkley's book does a good job of assembling evidence of thoroughgoing corruption throughout Cambodian society, based on his own personal interviews and on reading what government officials and fellow journalists have written. This is how most journalists seem to work. They don't appear to read much history, and thus have little frame of reference for anything that happened before their lifetimes. (They don't even check Wikipedia!) The introductory passage quoted above contains the worst examples of garbled history that I have encountered so far in this book.
1. The Khmer Rouge specifically targeted and killed most of their urban, educated, and entrepreneurial population, forcing everyone into autarchic, agrarian, rural communes, committing excesses even by the standards of Mao's Cultural Revolution. North Vietnam, by comparison, may have imprisoned, killed, or driven into exile large numbers of urban, educated, entrepreneurial southerners, but they had from early on adopted Russian-style industrial models of building socialism, which depended on cadres of educated technicians. Furthermore, within its first decade of economic chaos and stagnation after absorbing the south (1975-1986), Vietnam began reforming its Stalinist centrally planned economy and moving toward a Deng Xiaoping-style socialist-oriented market economy (called Doi Moi). These reform efforts began in the south, which had had a free-wheeling colonial- and military-oriented market economy until 1975. In Vietnam: Rising Dragon (Yale, 2010), Bill Hayton argues that unified Vietnam owes its economic dynamism primarily to the former South Vietnam.
2. The Cambodian (Khmer) and Vietnamese languages are both classified as Austro-Asiatic (also known as Mon-Khmer), thought to be indigenous to mainland Southeast Asia (roughly centered on the Mekong River Valley), with scattered outposts in northeastern India. "Cambodians" never migrated from India, nor were Vietnamese the ancestors of the Chinese. All of Southeast Asia was heavily influenced by South Asian culture for many, many centuries, but only northern Vietnam was ever conquered and ruled by China for a thousand years (111 BC to AD 938). Like Korea and Japan, Vietnam long ago adopted Chinese as its language of scholarship and all three languages retain thousands of words borrowed from Chinese. All three countries belong to the Confucian-influenced East Asian cultural sphere.
3. Cham peoples occupied most of the central coast of present-day Vietnam for at least a thousand years before they were finally conquered by the Vietnamese between 1471 and 1832. They were maritime peoples who spoke Malayo-Polynesian languages and had wide trading ties across the Malay world and beyond. During the 12th century, the Kingdom of Champa sacked Angkor Wat, but it was gradually diminished and its people dispersed by constant warfare with Khmer and Vietnamese kingdoms. Like most of the Malay world, the Cham absorbed much Hindu religion and culture during early times, and much Islamic religion and culture in later centuries.