Meet the Mekong mafia

Trailer courtesy of Tim Sorel

Two weeks ago at the Winnipeg Real to Reel Film Festival, the American filmmaker Tim Sorel showed his new documentary, The Trap of Saving Cambodia. The film is a depressing, 25-minute primer on the country’s spiral of endemic corruption, and the massive foreign aid complex that hasn’t done much to improve the situation.

The filmmaker follows David Pred, the founder of Bridges Across Borders Southeast Asia who’s an activist known for his campaigns against land evictions. Pred is a passionate campaigner who pops up regularly in newspapers, but he’s frustrated with the system. Every year since 1994, foreign donors have pledged typically between $600 million to $1.1 billion worth of donor aid to Cambodia, usually around half or more of its national budget each year.

But, as Sorel points out, the government, known colloquially as the “Mafia on the Mekong,” remains an  irresponsible kleptocracy targeting its poorest citizens for land grabs, along with a variety of other abuses. One 2009 report by the Cambodian rights group Licadho mentions that a quarter-million people in half the country have been affected by land evictions since 2003.

Most impressive are Sorel’s interviews with a “Who’s Who” list of Cambodia watchers: historian David Chandler, journalist Elizabeth Becker, now-deceased painter Vann Nath, and former US ambassador to Cambodia Joseph Mussomeli. In one interview, Chandler spoke of Prime Minister Hun Sen in a rather blunt way: “Hun Sen is an extremely competent politician, the most competent politician in Cambodia,” he said. “He listens. He’s got good advice. He’s modernized. He’s very quick. He’s also a thug. He has blood on his hands. He does things to people who get in his way that are not at all pleasant.”

It’s an observation familiar to Cambodia hands. The film is also worth watching for its disturbing footage of the Dey Krahorm eviction of 2009.

Dey Krahorm eviction, 2009. Photo courtesy of Licadho, via John Weeks

One Khmer journalist once mused to me that Cambodia is trapped in a pit of “growth without development.” He was making a pun on the tendency of the government and NGOs to build schools and hospitals, but without giving people the means to become good doctors and teachers.

The trend doesn’t seem to be changing much. Certainly the new high-rises sprouting up around Phnom Penh give the capital a flashier urban skyline. But this facade won’t magically bring about a wave of professionals who can survive outside of Hun Sen’s crony networks.