Margaret Slocomb, An Economic History of Cambodia in the Twentieth Century.
Singapore: NUS Press, 2010; published with support from the Nicholas Tarling Fund. Pp. xxi, 345; maps, photos, tables, chart, notes, bib., index.
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Serious survey works on the economic history of mainland Southeast Asia or of one of its component parts are a rarity in these times. The importance of and considerable interest in Margaret Slocomb’s latest book thus leads us to release two complementary reviews of the work, written by John V. Dennis and by Keith Carpenter.
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Reviewed by John V. Dennis.
Like the night-time candle flame that can be hazardous to inquisitive moths, the Cambodia of Pol Pot attracted its share of Marxist researchers, with varying results. During a visit to Pol Pot’s Cambodia in 1978, British academic and Pol Pot apologist Malcolm Caldwell was murdered in a government guest-house, reportedly not long after a private meeting with Pol Pot and also after making the comment, “I’ve seen the past and it works.” Two researchers at Cornell University, George Hildebrand and Gareth Porter, wrote a short monograph justifying Pol Pot’s rapid evacuation of Phnom Penh in April 1975 (1). The book was widely perceived to be an egregious apology for a brutal death march to the countryside that had put at risk as many as three million people. The academic careers of both authors–neither of whom had ever been to Cambodia–were more or less over within a year of their book’s publication. Two early supporters of the Pol Pot regime, Stephen Heder and Ben Kiernan, both went on to become unrelenting investigators and critics of that regime.
During my stint as a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand in 1975-1978, my own sympathies for Pol Pot’s revolution were severely battered over the course of the three-year period during which I read gruesome refugee accounts in the Thai press, as people fled from what was formally known as Democratic Kampuchea (DK). I also learned that, for Thai rice farmers at least, owning and managing one’s own land was critical to motivating farmer productivity. The coup de gr├вce for whatever remained of any far-left inclinations came when, in the early 1980s, I recognized in a photo display at the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide in Phnom Penh a pre-execution photo of Hing Sokkum. The remainder of this review is available here.
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Reviewed by Keith Carpenter.
The underlying theme of this solid, well written economic history of Cambodia is summed up in the phrase “plus ├зa change, plus c’est la m├кme chose.” The author, a former long-term resident of Cambodia, points to two characteristics of the country’s economy and society that have endured regardless of the form of economic organisation that prevailed in various periods: the resilience of agriculture and the continuing web of patron-client relationships. As regards the first, there has been a long-term and continuing failure to invest in agriculture, coupled with a paradoxical reliance on the sector to continue to bring the economy back from the brink of total collapse after successive crises. As for patron-client relationships, they are the basis for the persistent economic role of “corruption” in its various manifestations, regardless of who has been in control. Power elites of whatever political colour, or of no colour, continue to squeeze rural dwellers for whatever agricultural surplus can be extracted from the countryside, while peasants continue in a state of subsistence that sees no improvement in agricultural productivity. The extracted surplus is directed towards increasing personal prestige and power rather than investment in capital for productive activities. Thus the two persistent themes in Cambodia’s social and economic history are intimately intertwined. Why would the average peasant rice farmer want to increase his productivity when his folk memory reminds him that others are likely to appropriate any improvements in output that he might achieve?
An Economic History of Cambodia in the Twentieth Century both builds on the work of other scholars and makes extensive use of archival material in its treatment of the Cambodian economy up until about the year 2005. It will lay a foundation for scholars undertaking investigations into Cambodia in the future, as it sets the scene particularly well and draws together what has been written before. The extensive references will allow those interested in digging deeper to turn to the primary sources. The remainder of this review is available here.
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