SIEM REAP, Cambodia –- In a courtyard of Angkor Wat, the famous 12th century Hindu/Buddhist temple here, a policeman approached me as I was taking pictures of an ornate spire.
What had I done? Was I someplace I wasn’t supposed to be? Was I photographing something I wasn’t supposed to photograph?
He pointed to the silvery, official badge that hung on a ribbon from his shirt, as if to invoke the symbol of his authority. I thought he was about to give me a stern lecture.
“You want to buy?” he said, almost in a whisper. “I will sell to you.”
I was tempted. Surely a Cambodian police badge would boost my already significant authority as editorial director of The Huffington Post. I could wear it around the D.C. bureau and in the New York headquarters. Arianna might listen to me.
But I shook my head, said no, and waved the cop away politely.
It wasn’t a funny moment. It was sad, embarrassing and disturbing.
In the most glorious edifice of an ancient empire, a legatee of that culture was treating a symbol of his government's power as a trinket for sale. It was a small gesture, an uncomfortable moment, but all too symbolic of what is going on throughout Southeast Asia.
Government corruption is rampant. Income inequality is on the rise. Resentment among average people, including underpaid, public-sector workers (even police), is growing.
Yes, I know it sounds like the United States, but we still have the resources and freedoms to right the ship, if we pull together. In Southeast Asia, as well as other parts of the world, it’s a much tougher -- at times, a seemingly almost hopeless -- task.
To paraphrase Marx and Engels from the revolutionary year of 1848, a spectre is haunting the world. But it is not the spectre of communism. After wars, both cold and hot, that lasted for a century, communism as a respected theory -- and an avowed organizing principle -- is dead.
Instead, survivalist communist regimes have found a way to bond with a particularly virulent form of big-time cowboy “state” capitalism -- that is, profit via one-party permission.
At first, lovers of markets crowed at the triumph of Adam Smith. But there is always a flaw in human affairs, and more than two decades after the fall of the Wall, we can see what this one is: The evil spawn of the marriage of convenience between Adam Smith and Karl Marx is corruptionism.
It’s a flat-out and often secret conspiracy between government officials and for-profit business, with the latter paying the former vast sums for the privilege of access to markets, resources and the cheap labor of the citizenry.
Russia under Vladimir Putin is the most powerful and one of the most extreme examples. In the West we call it Putinism. But one of the worst regions in the world when it comes to this problem is Southeast Asia, and the one of worst countries, according to international surveys, is Cambodia. A 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index by Transparency International ranked Cambodia 160 out of 177 countries surveyed when it comes to how corrupt the public sector is perceived to be. Other highly corrupt countries included Vietnam (116), Laos (140), Thailand (102), Indonesia (114) and North Korea (175).
Corruption and growing income inequality don’t correlate exactly, but it’s close, and both phenomena are on the rise in the region.
You can see signs of both on the back roads and highways in Cambodia, which I explored on an 11-hour drive from Sihanoukville on the coast through Phnom Penh and here to Siem Reap, the tourist city near Angkor Wat.
After losing a generation of educated leadership in the Pol Pot years (over 1.5 million people died, and another million fled), Cambodia has a young population that seems to have little regard for the stolid men running the show. If you talk to locals, you'll find many think the government in Phnom Penh is selling them out to the Chinese or, worse, the Vietnamese -- who many Cambodians feel have always treated them like backwoods hicks.
As if to prove how disliked they are, the three-man troika that leads the Cambodian People's Party has plastered its portrait on practically every lamppost and billboard. CPP offices, clubhouses and warehouses in every town feature the photo.
In the snapshot, the three balding seniors in coats and ties wear 70s-style aviator glasses. They stare off together into some vague, but presumably egalitarian, socialist future. The man in the middle is Hun Sen, who has been prime minister for nearly 29 years and who “won” reelection last year in a disputed contest. Protests about it continue to simmer.
Along the roads, the billboards loom over scene after scene of hardscrabble rural life. Thatched cottages with one fluorescent light for all, motor-bikers buying gasoline by the liter (often in old whiskey bottles) to carry them the last 20 kilometers home, naked toddlers playing on mounds of dirt on road construction sites, water lily ponds choked with plastic food cartons and bits of plaster.
Cambodians fault the government for having allowed too much timbering. In their telling, the country was Sherwood Forest before Chinese and Vietnamese cash started flooding in to cut down tall hardwoods in the mountains.
Weather patterns aren't kind to the country, either. The dry season is six months long, and the rest is rain. Many rural folks build their small homes on stilts, and sleep on the upper floor.
Farmers say they don't have the soil, technology or money to grow three rice crops a year with chemical fertilizer, as they do in the rich Mekong Delta of Vietnam. In most of Cambodia, they grow only one. However, Cambodians believe that their rice, organically grown and tended mostly by hand in all phases, including drying and even milling, is the best in the world -- the most delicate, the most fragrant. I think they are right. A bowl of it with some coconut soup is perfect.
While the Thai are way ahead on global "fragrant" jasmine rice production, the Cambodians could do well by selling their own product as artisanal, organic and light on the land.
But that would require imagination and savvy, which the leaders evidently don't have. And a company willing to pay those leaders off.
CORRECTION: This article incorrectly ranked Singapore as among the most corrupt nations, according to the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index. It is in fact one of the least corrupt.