T HE last book that Bert Hoak read was entitled "How to Survive the Coming Bad
"That somehow seems appropriate for Cambodia," he said in his characteristically
booming voice, "because it's going to get bad here and that's the way it should
be. We should stop all aid so Cambodians suffer and so they know who really makes
Slouched in an alarmingly flimsy chair, Bert was surrounded by a swirl of staff and
family members busy packing up the jumble of five years living and working in Cambodia.
The bearded and bear-like New Yorker arrived in mid 1992 as part of the UNTAC election
machine before setting up Bert's Book and Guest house - first stop and briefing centre
for thousands of low budget travelers.
But after investing $60,000 dollars and a whole lot of time and energy, Bert is "outa
here" and heading toward an uncertain future. The outlook for 10 Khmers who
worked for him, not to mention the flock of moto-dop drivers who earned what they
could by ferrying tourists around the city, would seem worse.
But, according to Bert, enough is enough and, in effect, you have to be cruel to
"We've propped up a regime which never had any intent of supporting democracy
and human rights and while we took care of the sanitation and medicine, the education,
Hun Sen and Ranariddh cut down trees, introduced gambling and prostitution and stockpiled
"The Cambodian people have got to realize that their leaders don't really care
and what it means to have despotic rulers. If we continue to supply aid, they will
Passionate as he is about the shortcomings of Cambodia's elite, Bert is also highly
critical of the so-called "humanitarians" who, he says, have pursued their
own interests to the detriment of effective change.
"The reality is donors have given Cambodia more than $5 billion in the past
five years, and every dollar we've put in has freed up money for Cambodia's elite
to buy more cognac or another Mercedes. We build roads so people can get to market
and...those roads are destroyed by log trucks...
"Is Cambodia now a better place? No it is not - human rights, pluralism, personal
freedoms, that's all just gone down the drain.
"But you know what? Optimism is commensurate with salaries and the sort of colonial
lifestyle Westerners can enjoy here which they could never enjoy at home.
"After the Easter Sunday grenade attack we circulated a petition condemning
the violence. Out of 6,000 foreign workers we got just 700 signatures and 200 of
them were collected here at Bert's Books. I wonder how much of that pathetic protest
was due to fear of losing salaries, fear of losing a lavish lifestyle and fear of