- The Handbook of Contemporary Cambodia ed. by Katherine Brickell and Simon Springer
No other book better depicts the country’s “here and now” than The Handbook of Contemporary Cambodia. By avoiding the usual — and often simplistic — Western-centric narratives of the country’s development challenges, this volume presents a first-rate account of current Cambodian society. Although both editors come from a geography background, their book provides a unique and well-rounded insight into the country’s current situation, primarily because of their engagement with international and local academics, development professionals and activists.
As is made clear in the introduction, the traumatic Khmer Rouge era provides only a partial explanation of the forces that have shaped contemporary Cambodia. The country has been haunted by its submissive position as a recipient of development aid, problematic relations with its nearest neighbours Vietnam and Thailand, and its dependence on China since the coup of 1997. The 2013 elections raised hopes that Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP)’s “rule by law” would be overturned. But after the CPP’s narrow-margin victory ensured that the old elites continued to hold power, the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) refused to attend parliament, resulting in months of political instability. The subsequent fragile peace between the ruling and opposition parties has been characterized by too many painful compromises.
The Handbook of Contemporary Cambodia helps readers understand the country’s complex facets by dividing them into five sections: political and economic tensions; rural developments; urban conflicts; social processes; and cultural currents. These five themes reflect entangled social realities that can be both sources of optimism and pessimism regarding the country’s future.
Catherine Morris’ chapter on Justice, Law and Human Rights, for example, provides a legal backdrop to the current political situation. When the traditional system of dispute resolution was disrupted during the violence of the 1970s and 1980s, alternatives provided under pressure from foreign donors, such as law reforms and legal training for lawyers and judges, proved much less effective. Given the environment of heightened neopatrimonialism, [End Page 543] attempts to establish the rule of law were undermined by the CPP and powerful elites who utilized the law for their own benefit.
While many Cambodians and foreign observers remain sceptical about the opposition CNRP’s ability to offer solutions to the country’s many socioeconomic challenges, civil society receives high praise from international organizations and donors. Acknowledging the increasing number of attacks on activists, Louise Coventry’s chapter offers a less romanticized view of Cambodia’s civic engagement. Coventry shows how wider civil society has been overshadowed by an ever-growing number of NGOs backed by powerful donors that often cast aside more embedded, more traditional and likely more effective community-based organizations (CBOs).
In making a connection between evolutions, concepts and spaces that are usually analyzed separately, this edited book also shows Cambodia as a country of blurring boundaries. This is, for example, apparent in the merging of boundaries between the village and city. With three-quarters of the population living in rural areas, the poor management of natural resources shapes the everyday experience of most Cambodians. Melissa Marschke’s chapter describes how state concessions to extractive industries, insufficient water and land management, and related political decision-making make rural livelihoods harsh. As a result, rural-urban migration for employment in garment factories and at construction sites, insightfully analyzed in Sabina Lawreniuk’s chapter, has in the past two decades been one of the main drivers of the country’s economic growth. But living in the city also creates challenges, such as forced relocations of poor communities and restricted labour rights. In this regard, Simon Springer’s absorbing chapter on homelessness shows how violent relocations of homeless people is being hidden under the euphemism of “city beautification”. While conceding that the division between the rural and urban is artificial, the sections of the Handbook that cover Rural Developments and Urban Conflicts capture these linkages and offer a uniquely contextualized insight into key issues affecting most...