Building on the last post, travel in Cambodia really drives home the new development mantra that "institutions matter". The Khmer Rouge period wiped out, along with a sizeable chunk of the population, almost all of the inherited knowledge about how things run. Everything fell by the wayside, even simple agricultural techniques, which you would think would be the one thing that a forced agrarianism would have retained. The US ambassador, who is the master of the pithy pull quote, told us that Cambodia has gone from being a net exporter to an importer of food because "the Khmer Rouge killed everyone who knew how to plant rice or irrigate a field". Rice yields in the country are a fraction of those in neighboring nations.

There are advantages to this for Cambodia now; the bad was (mostly) wiped out along with the good, although endemic corruption is one thing that seems to have survived the Khmer Rouge demonstration; perhaps this tells you just how deeply it's hard wired into us. The upside is that the ambassador says he's never seen a country so open to criticism and help; they have no traditions left to protect. He offers their progress in fighting HIV/AIDS as an example; no one in Cambodia had any interest in denying that there was a problem, or arguing about using condoms, or sexual virtue.

Obviously, this would not justify the genocide even if it were all upside; and it isn't. The new openness is a thin thread of silver in an enormous, brooding cloud that still hangs over the entire country. Social and family cohesion is weak, land title is often settled by dispossessing the informal squatters into dire poverty, corruption is endemic, and Cambodia is decades behind its neighbours in development. Those decades are told in human indicators like the achingly beautiful little children on the street with tiny elfin features, and hair bleached nearly blond by malnutrition.

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