Cambodia less stable than Iraq and Afghanistan?

There’s a report going around in Cambodia that everyone it seems can’t stop talking about: The Economist puts Cambodia in the Top 5 of countries most at risk of social unrest as the economic crisis deepens. The announcement was such a blow, it seems everyone has protested. The prime minister mentions the report every chance he gets, only to blast it. Businessmen have spoken out. Even the journalists most critical of the government can’t seem to believe it.

Frankly, I have a hard time believing it myself. Cambodia is ranked on par with Sudan, whose president was just indicted by the International Criminal Court (something our prime minister doesn’t like either), where aid workers get murdered by the dozen and Darfuris by the hundreds of thousands. In these rankings, Cambodia, which has been at peace for more than a decade, is only topped by Zimbabwe (its dictator, its inflation, its cholera), Chad (its border wars, its coups) and DR Congo (no list necessary). But are considered more stable than the Khmer kingdom: Iraq, which we’re told could fall back into violence any day now; Afghanistan, which we’re told never really got out of it; Pakistan, which we’re told is the next hotbed of terrorism; and the Central African Republic, where Cambodia happens to be sending peacekeepers. Moldova, Thailand and the Czech Republic, where governments are indeed wobbling, also rank much better. It’s simply hard to swallow.

To understand the outrage of pretty much everyone in Cambodia over what could, after all, only be another list compiled by a reader-hungry magazine, you must know two things.

1) Cambodia systematically makes a terrible showing in any kind of global listing. The country is 166th on corruption perception, 126th in press freedom, second to last in 2009 Asian growth predictions (I should rather say recession predictions), in the bottom 10 for digital access… It’s like getting picked last in gym over and over again. Every week a new one comes out. Phnom Penh has even been dubbed worst city in the world to hail a taxi. Of course, Cambodia deserves a lot of those: it’s not an easy place to live. But even when the spanking is deserved, after a while, egos get bruised.

2) This particular ranking simply can’t be accepted because Cambodia prides itself on its stability. After 3 years and 10 months of an incomprehensible genocide, after a foreign invasion and 10 years of occupation, after another decade of civil war, after a coup and tanks in the streets of Phnom Penh, after riots as recently as 6 years ago, now things are calm. There’s inane poverty, land grabbings, increasing maternal mortality, garment factories closing, democracy decreasing, child rapes rampant, health care inexistant, pollution skyrocketing… but darn, "at least there’s peace," Cambodian people will tell you. True or not, it’s even the ruling party’s top electoral argument: "without us, there would be civil war." (Cynics would read between the lines, "we’d rather start a war than give up power.") So telling Cambodians their country is less stable than all those places they see on the TV news where people are getting blown up, is not only factually doubtful; it’s simply insulting.