Cambodia’s one-eyed strongman
In the star-studded cast of visiting dignitaries here for the 31st Asean Summit, very few people noticed and little was said about Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen. But after President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe resigned from office last week, Hun Sen became the world’s longest-serving head of government in a monarchy led by King Norodom Sihamoni, eldest son of the late King Norodom Sihanouk.
At a young age, Hun Sen left school to join the Khmer Rouge, rising through the ranks to become a battalion commander. In 1975, during the battle for Phnom Penh, he lost his left eye. He eventually left the Khmer Rouge during Pol Pot’s genocidal regime that claimed some 1.7 million victims, and fled to Vietnam.
In 1985, he returned with Vietnamese forces and at the age of 35, became prime minister in a puppet regime set up by the Vietnamese. Except for a brief period, he has held on to power up to this date.
Last week, the Supreme Court of Cambodia dissolved the country’s opposition party, the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), and arrested its leader, Kem Sokha, for an alleged plot to overthrow the government with the help of the United States. As many as 118 party members were prohibited from engaging in political activity for a period of five years. What a way to silence and crush the opposition!
In response to these actions by the Cambodian government, the United States announced that it was ending funding support for local and general elections scheduled in 2018. A government spokesman replied that “Hun Sen welcomes and encourages the US to cut off aid.” Quite a difference from Indonesian President Sukarno’s “Go to hell with your aid” — a response to similar US actions in the past. Chinese support allows Cambodia much flexibility in ignoring Western criticisms. In fact, China spends more than the United States does in highly visible infrastructure projects in Cambodia, without any demand for government reform.
The events in Cambodia reminded me of my own meetings with some of the past and present figures on the political scene in that country.
Many years ago, during my posting in Indonesia, the Suharto government convened what it described as an “informal cocktail party.” The guests to this “party,” aside from Asean delegates, were representatives of four warring Cambodian political factions.
At the top of the list was King Norodom Sihanouk, who met all the ambassadors from Asean. The King appeared a bit heavier compared to early pictures of the playboy monarch, and his voice stayed at a high pitch throughout the entire monologue. That was how the meeting went. The King had often been described as “mercurial,” and his performance that day was vintage Sihanouk.
The other personality was Prince Norodom Ranariddh, son of the King and head of Funcinpec, a royalist party. He was the best-dressed man on the Cambodian side and considering his royal background and western education, this was not surprising. I might add that there was a certain haughtiness in the way he carried himself.
The toughest-looking faction leader was Khieu Samphan of the Khmer Rouge Party. His delegation members kept to themselves most of the time, rarely mixing with the other guests. Looking at him, one is reminded of a still from “The Killing Fields,” with hundreds of skulls piled one on top of the other. It was difficult to dissociate the Khmer Rouge from the genocide during their reign of terror, and the hard features of Samphan only reinforced this image. Samphan is now serving a life sentence, after conviction by a UN-backed tribunal hearing crimes against humanity.
The oldest in the group was Son Sann, head of the Kampuchean People’s National Liberation Front. He was also the most media-conscious, constantly facing the reporters and cameramen gathered outside the palace grounds in Bogor where the conference was held. The palace, once a favorite of the late President Sukarno, held a lot of his favorite paintings, many of beautiful women, and the grounds were full of freely roaming deer. Son Sann passed away in 2000.
The fourth faction was headed by Hun Sen, who was the prime minister for the government of the State of Cambodia, the puppet regime set up by the Vietnamese. If one went by the cut of his suit, or the manner of his speech, Hun Sen would have been a most unlikely candidate for a future “strongman” of his nation.
At that time, the Philippines did not recognize Hun Sen’s government, viewing it as a front for the Vietnamese invaders, and, therefore, contact was minimal and at arm’s length. But Hun Sen requested a private meeting with the head of the Philippine delegation, Foreign Secretary Raul Manglapus. Together with his special assistant, Ambassador Rora Tolentino, I accompanied Manglapus to Hun Sen’s suite at the Hotel Indonesia.
The man we met turned out to be a quiet and low-key individual, reflective of his humble origins as a farm boy. He was the complete opposite of Prince Ranariddh. As mentioned earlier, he had lost his left eye and wore thick lenses that perhaps were meant to cover the wound. A chain smoker, he spoke in the Khmer language through a translator, expressing the wish that one day the Philippines and Cambodia would again enjoy warm and friendly relations as in the past. He tried to explain the Vietnamese presence in his country, saying it was only with their assistance that Cambodia was able to get rid of the Pol Pot gang. It was more of a getting-to-know-you meeting; there were no agreements, no commitments. After a few minutes, we all stood up to say goodbye and left the suite.
Today Hun Sen is in complete control over the Khmer nation. He is credited with substantial economic progress, perhaps at the price of certain freedoms and rights. That is the usual tradeoff. There are no warring factions bearing arms against the government. There are no persecuted minorities fleeing state security forces. There is little political noise. At times the silence can be deafening. From outside the country, there appears to be peace throughout the land. Hun Sen will most likely remain in power after the next elections.
In an essay in “Foreign Affairs,” Stephanie Giry explains: “Hun Sen has perfected the art of electoral authoritarianism without alienating western donors, while offsetting their influence by welcoming more and more investments from China. At once crass and deft, salt of the earth and grandiloquent, he is a remarkable political animal.”
Is someone picking up lessons from Hun Sen?
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.