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The Trap of misguided intentions

The Trap of Saving Cambodia is such an egregious piece of NGO wank that one suspects the reason Meta House disguised its screening was to avoid falling afoul of the Kingdom’s anti-pornography laws.

The premise seemed promising enough, hinged on former US Ambassador Joseph Mussemelli’s melancholy warning of the Kingdom’s dangerous charms: "It's the most dangerous country you'll ever visit, because you'll fall in love with it...and then it will break your heart".

With a title and a tagline like that, one could be forgiven for thinking that the documentary was a long overdue critique of that all-too-regular NGO phenomenon: the best-intentions start-up with no business plan and no sustainable cash flow, inevitably collapsing in a heap two days after either the coin dries up or the founder leaves the country.

Alarm bells ring immediately with the films first foray into historical context. “Cambodia is a small country south of China, about the size of Missouri,” the narrator intones.

Cue stock footage of Phnom Penh’s evacuation, black-and-white slo-mo footage of Hun Sen and pals looking sinister, panorama shots of urban decay.

It goes without saying that anyone seeking to draw attention to Cambodia’s plight needs a measure of context for a foreign audience, but director Tim Sorel’s treatment of the Prime Minister verges on the defamatory.

Hun Sen was indeed a member of the Khmer Rouge, as The Trap highlights. Two glaring omissions: his defection to Vietnam and his marshalling of resistance forces to topple the genocidal regime and his efforts to keep the country from falling apart in the ‘80s, all while the US refused to extend diplomatic recognition government and gave covert funding to the KR’s bases on the Thai border.

As far as the film is concerned, Hun Sen may as well be Pol Pot’s favourite son. Of all the legitimate reasons to criticise the CPP – and there are many – caricature suffices in lieu of fact.

Conspicuously absent is any willingness to let people of this country tell their own history. The film has just two Cambodian interviewees: Vann Nath, detailing the horrors of Tuol Sleng, and the author of a Khmer Rouge history used solely as a means for the director make a ham-fisted point about censorship.

Cambodia does suffer from restrictions on public assembly, and protests are often violently suppressed. On the other hand, Cambodia’s local foreign language press is some of the freest in the region and can publish with impunity. (Whether it can prevent the ruling party from behaving with impunity is another question.)

Journalists are not persecuted in this country in the way they were even a decade ago. The Trap would have its audience believe that its people live in the Eastern Bloc, dissenting voices fearing for their lives if the secret police found the source of their hastily self made and copied mainifestos.

This documentary lays the blame for the failings of foreign aid squarely at the feet of the government, a frustrating missed opportunity for anyone even vaguely aware of the failings of some foreign aid organisations.

Let’s spare ourselves the Range Rover jokes. Many references are made to the government’s actions in relation to the Boeung Kak evictions. Any guesses as to how many mentions of the aid groups in Lakeside who’ve organised neighbourhoods in isolation, because community solidarity is less important than these groups competing with each other for limited financial resources?

The film can’t even bring itself to be complimentary about what successes NGOs have had in the country. Paedophilia is not nearly the scourge it was in this country last decade, the result of strong and effective collaborations between aid groups and locals.

Instead, The Trap makes patronising reference to the disconnect between official condemnation of the Cambodian government from abroad, and its continued reliance on aid funding from these same sources. What is the film advocating? That foreign aid stop completely?

After the credits, you’re almost tempted to want it to happen, just so Sorel can see the sheer lunacy he is advocating.

To contact the reporter on this story: Sean Gleeson at



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