The following is a guest post from Ellen Ripley of photography fame which reviews the Cambodia-related sections of Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures: A True Story from Hell on Earth.
I was excited to see a book on Amazon about the shortcomings of development in Cambodia as told through the personal experiences of developers, only to be sorely disappointed by what I will refer to as U.N propaganda. This book has sections on countries besides Cambodia, but this review will focus solely on the accounts of the authors on their U.N work for Cambodia’s 1993 national elections.
This book starts out similar to a lot of stories: a bunch of 20-somethings trying to find their place after college or to start some kind of career where it seems like they’re stuck beating their heads against the wall. Anyway, with limited opportunities and intimate struggles, each of the people in this book apply to work for the U.N and end up in Cambodia.
Firstly, the way the authors immediately jump into what is missing in Cambodia bothers me; perhaps because of what’s missing they quickly seek to stay at the “IT” house in the capital of Phnom Penh. Why is it considered the “it” house, you’re wondering? Because that’s where all the cool expats and U.N workers party. Why does this mentality annoy me? Simple: they were put in this country to help the people but each one of them actually seeks out the chance to disassociate themselves from Cambodian people. I still see this today among NGO and U.N workers; it makes it hard to believe that they are here to help others and not themselves.
The other interesting thing about this “it” house is they are so proud of the “diversity” of its residents: people from many different backgrounds and ethnicities, etc. But guess what is strangely missing from the mix (which wouldn’t be hard to find): a Cambodian. This book clearly makes Cambodians into the outsiders, the Other.
I should specify that one author is different in this regards. Andrew, who built himself a house and lives on the outskirts of the city, has been here since war ceased as a doctor. He’s the only one who has attempted to pick up the language and has an interest in working to help this country.
Before I embark on the chapters of this book and how little I actually learned (other than that the world of development work has not changed) I will talk about the shortcomings of the U.N program for the election in Cambodia.
From the outset, this mission did not begin out of the goodness of the U.N’s heart. It did not want to spend $2 billion on making Cambodia into a democracy. But with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the declaration that the Cold War was over came the idea of a New World Order and how through this globalized society we will all be free, blah blah. Naturally, all the big wigs sat around and came up with their great plan to prove to the world how things were going to be different, but in order to do that they needed to pick a puppet to demonstrate that possibility. If they could make Cambodia into a democracy, they could help any country make the switch, right? Obviously, because becoming a democratic state is like some sort of math problem wherein there is a set formula. Never mind that Cambodia had just come out of a genocide where the ruling government had led that genocide and now they were supposed to count on said government to help Cambodians– that’s sort of an issue in itself. Then to not remotely understand how the previous dictator Pol Pot enforced lessons on the “right idea” behind politics though education…It may come as a big shock to you, but guess how the U.N went about teaching the Cambodian people about democracy? Through education at wats and schools, without a hint of irony.
Needless to say, the Cambodian people were greatly changed by the genocide, during which time they were forced to agree with whatever they were taught or else it would equal death.
Never the less, when the U.N went on with their education plan, they could not figure out why the people always agreed with whatever they said (e.g. yes, they felt safe voting in the new elections) but then UN workers would find out through the grapevine that people actually didn’t trust the elections. In fact, some people believed satellites could watch them voting and thus the government would get even with them. Maybe this all seems extremely far-fetched to you or me, but to a person who has seen crazier things (and not to mention had a king who was always telling them that the CIA had been watching him and wanted to overthrow him) it’s pretty plausible. Let’s be honest, none of us know what Nixon did to level the war in Vietnam, anyway.
Next was the hiring of all these peacekeepers and UN workers who I’d have thought, to be given a mission like creating a new democracy, would have be pretty well-qualified right? Yeah, not the case. The main people in this book prove this by showing just how easy it was for them to sign up. Yet it gets worse than some lost souls in their 20s– to putting downright criminals in charge. Apparently once the Wall fell down, Bulgaria desperately needed U.N assistance. Nothing is free, of course, so in exchange they were supposed to give the UN some “peacekeepers”. The Bulgarians instead made their own version of the deal with their own people, which resulted in Bulgaria giving the UN people who were criminals or insane. If said “peacekeepers” served the UN well then they would be given a free pass when they got back. This was well-known by everyone at the time. It’s an ongoing joke in Cambodia that the only thing the UN gave this country was AIDs; these criminals were known for rape, buying prostitutes, etc. Shocker, I know, yet these people also had the peace and safety of Cambodia in their hands as well. So what about the 20-something UN workers?
Heidi, the sole female perspective in the book, is from New York, and starts off with how crappy her life is: being poor and not pretty enough. At first I found her relatable, which it is always egotistical of a reader to think that they could be that person, but hey, I’ll admit it, I did. With her experience in social work and understanding what it feels like to be hard-pressed for money, one would think she would understand how a Cambodian would feel and better relate to them. That’s not the case, however; she lets her new salary and the low cost of living in Cambodia go to her head and soon she becomes like the person she once worshipped walking down Madison Ave. She does not even try to make herself an equal in Cambodia; she talks about her trip to Kampong Salm, the beach, how she was able to order everything on the menu, and how the Khmer women came out to serve her friends and herself with out thinking about how that whole situation looked or how the Khmer women felt. She participates in this hierarchy which she helps to create, and in the process makes the people she’s there to help her slaves. As far as any insight on Cambodia, it’s all blocked out by her worrying constantly what people think of her and whether or not she is good enough to be around these lawyers and other UN workers. She views the UN system and its people as ideal; she does not once talk about the system in another way, as one might hope when talking about a “true story of hell on earth”. Instead she talks about her own personal growth, and worse yet views all their efforts as successful– meaning Cambodia’s elections were successful and now has a functioning democracy. This book was published in 2003, so there is no excuse: we’ve seen the results of the UN’s efforts to create a “democracy” here.
The reason I can’t finish this book is the blatant lie that the elections were a success. Back in ’93 people did die; there was political outrage in the streets because the winner was being denied the right to rule. Hun Sen, Cambodia’s ruler at the time, would not step down. Instead there had to be an agreement on shared power between him and the fairly-elected leader. To me that’s a fail. So now thanks to this book I do understand something about why Hun Sen will never be thrown out of power– to do so would show the world that nothing has actually changed since the end of the Cold War, and how the UN failed so they just let their pseudo-democratic system stay put rather than actually fixing it.
Another UN worker in the book was Ken, the misogynist asshole. Why he got under my skin with his sexist undertones is simple: he went to a poor country only prove his masculinity and to prove to the world that he is different from what he refers to as a polka-dot-tied lawyer. He objectifies women and flaunts his masculinity throughout most of the book. When he first gets to the party house, he has to go over the physical appearance of Chloe, the house owner. He is taken by her quick disinterest in him. After all, who would not be taken with him? It’s difficult to handle his type of personality in the sense that here is this guy who is hired to promote world peace and democracy but does not even see how his ideas behind what makes him awesome as a man and all females should recognize this does just the opposite of promoting peace and equality. Some excerpts from the book of things he talks about: someone living in the “it” house has a friend who dies, and he is crying. Ken’s reaction to this is to promise himself he will never cry like that because it isn’t masculine. In another instance, Andrew is someone all of them look up to as he has his shit together and does not put up with the corruption and things most people put up with, so in this regard Ken views him as an ideal and wants to impress him that he is just as good. So to gain some bro power he signs up to go out into the provinces, where upon he comes into contact with those pesky Belgian criminals– I mean, UN peacekeepers– who put him in danger and later that night they get ambushed by the Khmer Rouge guerrillas that are still living in the countryside. Needless to say he does not handle this in the masculine way he thought he would and ends up at some UN building for protection. This might explain why he never talks his masculine dominance again, because in fact he had to come to terms with his lack of dominance.
Now let’s move up to the roof of one of these famous parties where Ken has now decided he thinks Heidi is not what he had taken her for at first glance, but describes her as having “big green eyes with short hair, but not butchy-short, still feminine”. Just then he sees Andrew and wants to talk to him, but “Andrew would never take [him] seriously if [he] was seen standing next to Heidi.” Interestingly, Andrew only approaches them because he wants to talk to Heidi, not Ken. Nevertheless, because Ken has let her know what he thinks of her, Heidi seems to feel that Andrew wouldn’t want to associate with the likes of her, since she is of “below-average intelligence.”
On election day, Ken sees a 7 year old girl holding a naked baby, which prompts him to talk about how he wants a kid– but not just any kid, but one that holds a naked baby and never complains about it. He likes the fact he sees this poor 7 year old girl in a submissive role, being taught by society to keep quiet, and he, himself, yearns to have a submissive female of his own.
After the election, he proudly states for the reader that 90 percent of Cambodians voted, but of course doesn’t say how meaningless this is in the face of a leader who refuses to give up power. He leaves us with this advice that he feels he gained for the good Dr. Andrew: “The larger the threat, the more profound the doubts, the deeper you have to dig for faith and CONQUER fear”. Most of his words throughout the book are similar; it’s all about beating and defeating, and little talk is ever focused on the human involvement aspect. It makes me sad to think that he went on a did more “humanitarian work”, and gets to be somebody who is “solving” world problems and fighting for justice and equality. He also never admits that this hell on earth was really a rich paradise for him, and does not seem to see the issues with the job he was doing. Rather, he is bold enough to brag about the supposed success of a truly failed election.
Review by Ellen Ripley.