This article contains some great historical background to Cambodia's current political and economic situation. I am fascinated with H.E. Prime Minister Hun Sen's ascension from a farmer to Cambodia's leader, considering his unique leadership and management capabilities. It an amazing style to note.
Jan 22, 2010
By Paul Vrieze Asia Times Online
PHNOM PENH - Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen recently marked his 25th anniversary as the Southeast Asian nation's leader. First appointed by the Cambodian National Assembly on January 14, 1985, he became at 33 years old the youngest prime minister in the world.
Hun Sen's journey from a communist leader to an elected head of government spans a quarter of a century of civil war, domestic and international upheaval, a negotiated peace and transition to democracy through which he and his Cambodia's People's Party (CPP) have imposed themselves as the country's deliverers of stability and order.
By retaining the helm in Cambodia's fractious politics for 25 years, he now stands among a unique category of leaders, ranking as the 11th-longest ruling leader in the world. In Southeast Asia, only the Sultan of Brunei, the number one longest-serving government leader since assuming office in 1967, has been in power longer than Hun Sen. Of the other nine longer-serving leaders, five are heads of governments in Africa and four are from the Middle East.
Hun Sen reflected on his long political career and humble beginnings in a speech at the National Institute for Education in Phnom Penh on January 12. "I became [foreign] minister when I was 27 years old, deputy prime minister when I was 29 years old and prime minister at 33 years old," Hun Sen said of his appointments in the People's Republic of Kampuchea - the communist state set up by Vietnam in 1979 after it toppled the Khmer Rouge, whose bloody regime caused the death of about 1.7 million Cambodians.
He recalled how he joined the anti-republican maquis, a movement which consisted of several resistance groups including the Khmer Rouge, in April 1970, explaining his move was "based on an appeal from King [Norodom] Sihanouk", Cambodia's monarch who had been ousted in a coup d'etat earlier that year. "Throughout 40 years, I have known all kinds of tastes. I knew how my commander commanded the troops and I knew how to make tea for him. I knew how to wash clothes for him," Hun Sen said in his now trademark plain-speaking public-address style.
The prime minister went on to talk about his political future, confirming his intention to run in the next election in 2013. "The party conference announced my candidacy for the future prime minister and ... last week Chea Sim [president of the CPP] also reconfirmed my nomination for the premiership," Hun Sen said before taking aim at opposition parties.
"Please do not try to limit the mandate of the premiership. You want the mandate limited because you are worrying you will lose to me," he said, while also reminding the audience he still had another three-and-a-half years in office under the mandate of the 2008 election, which his party, the CPP, won with a two-thirds legislative majority.
Hun Sen started on his political path in 1978, when he became a founding member of the Kampuchean United Front for National Salvation after fleeing to Vietnam in 1977 to avoid Khmer Rouge purges in the Eastern Zone, where he had been a Khmer Rouge regimental commander. The Front consisted of former Khmer Rouge cadres who were prepared by Vietnamese officials to become Cambodia's new leadership after the removal of the Khmer Rouge government.
The Vietnamese army and the Front brought down the Democratic Kampuchea regime on January 7, 1979, in reaction to bloody raids by Khmer Rouge forces into Vietnamese territory in 1978. As the Front's leaders assumed their positions in the new PRK government after the Khmer Rouge regime was toppled, Hun Sen became foreign minister.
The early years
Current and former government officials and people who knew Hun Sen in his youth or as a budding young communist leader said his rhetorical talents and ability to lead, learn, adapt and survive the changing political and ideological terrain in Cambodia were apparent from the start in his personality.
Hun Sen was born as Hun Bunnal on August 5, 1952, in Peam Koh Snar in Kompong Cham province, a village of tobacco farmers located on the banks of the Mekong River. Local villager Chhe Noeun, 61, who claimed to be a childhood friend of the premier, said during a visit to the village that he spent much time listening to his younger friend talk. "He was one of the kids who was smarter than the others. His speaking, his rhetoric, was very good. During farm work, he liked to chat a lot, he made a lot of jokes," he said.
Noeun said Hun Sen left the village to stay in a Buddhist pagoda in the capital when he was about 16 years old. The Hun family, he said, had left the village in about 1963 to move to Memot district, located on the Vietnamese border, but they returned in 1969 after the start of the American bombing campaign in east Cambodia.
After Hun Sen left the village, Noeun said, he did not see him again until 1974 when he showed up on a motorbike at a local primary school as a Khmer Rouge cadre carrying an AK-47 rifle. Hun Sen told his friend, "I just came again today and I don't know when I will come back or if I will die."
Veteran CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap said during an interview last week that he remembered Hun Sen exhibited leadership qualities and a capacity to learn quickly early in his career. These skills, Yeap said, allowed Hun Sen to gain loyalty from his staff, to impress officials from Vietnam, whose military remained in Cambodia from 1979 to 1989, and to sway members of the Khmer People's Revolutionary Party - the previous name of the CPP.
"I met him in 1979 ... He was the youngest foreign minister in the world," Yeap recounted. "Even though he was five years younger than me, I saw he was hard working," he said. "[Hun Sen] only finished grade 3 or 4, before joining the resistance movement. Even though he studied a little bit, he learned very fast," Yeap said. "He liked to communicate with people, especially with those with more experience."
One man who takes a darker view of the young Hun Sen and his rise to power is Pen Sovann, the first prime minister of the PRK, who served as premier for only a few months in 1981 before being arrested and held under house arrest in Hanoi for nine years by the Vietnamese government. "Vietnam ordered me to be arrested by 12 armed soldiers. Hun Sen was there to read the charges against me," Sovann said during an interview at his Takeo province home. Sovann said he was purged by the Vietnamese authorities because of his independent political leadership and his opposition to a number of government policies proposed by Vietnam.
He claimed Hun Sen was appointed prime minister in 1985 because "[Vietnamese authorities] believed and depended on Hun Sen as they believed he would do everything for Vietnam." The former prime minister, who knew Hun Sen from the time he joined the Front in Vietnam, characterized him as smart and a talented public speaker, but also as an authoritarian with few scruples.
"He learns very fast and then he can lecture [on a topic] later on," he said. "Hun Sen has outstanding capacities. His intellect is strong, but he has no morals to go along with it." Sovann said he was "not surprised" by Hun Sen's world-beating political longevity. "Hun Sen likes power; he wants to increase his power. He doesn't listen to anyone ... If anyone criticizes him, he will do anything to defend his power."
Following the Paris Peace Agreements in the early 1990s and the subsequent United Nations-supervised transition from a Vietnamese-backed communist government to a fledgling democracy, Hun Sen quickly showed he was a clever politician who could woo Cambodia's largely rural and uneducated electorate. By the end of the decade, he had also managed to disband the Khmer Rouge step by step by offering amnesty to defectors.
Despite his political skills, Hun Sen did not shy away from using violence against political opposition. In 1997, he took over the government by force and the ensuing fighting killed about 100 people, mostly from the rival Funcinpec Party, according to a 2008 US Congressional Research Service (CRS) report, which referred to the takeover as an "unlawful seizure of power".
Before the military takeover, a grenade attack hit a peaceful opposition rally in Phnom Penh, which killed 16 children, men and women and wounded more than 100 others. Recent disclosures of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI) probe into the attack, which was conducted because an American citizen was injured in the blast, were made under a Freedom of Information Act request filed by The Cambodia Daily, a local English-language newspaper.
The investigation, which was cut short due to intensifying threats to the FBI agent, found evidence that directly implicated Hun Sen's bodyguard unit and the CPP, while highly placed witnesses declined to cooperate with the FBI, according to the records disclosed to the newspaper. The US government reacted to the violent events of 1997 by banning direct aid to Cambodia for a decade. As the US Congressional Research Service noted, "The autocratic tendencies of Prime Minister Hun Sen have discouraged foreign investment and strained US-Cambodian relations."
Although opinions vary among researchers and observers on Hun Sen's accomplishments during his 25-year reign, most acknowledged the transformation of war-torn Cambodia into a stable, peaceful country with an open and growing economy as his principal achievement. Before economic growth came to a halt last year due to the global economic crisis, Cambodia's economy grew an average 9.5% per year from 2002 to 2008, according to a recent World Bank report.
However, human-rights abuses, land evictions, rampant corruption among government officials, a lack of an independent judiciary and intimidation of political opponents have also been part of life in Cambodia under Hun Sen, local and international human-rights groups have said. Last year saw a rise in court cases against political opponents and other critics of Hun Sen.
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy, of the eponymous political party, is currently in France but facing criminal charges in Cambodia over the removal of boundary posts along the border with Vietnam. Rainsy said Hun Sen had shown during his long premiership that his objectives were personal and did not serve ordinary Cambodians. "It is obvious that Hun Sen's only or predominant goal is to remain in power, to survive politically ... Power is everything for him. But above all, power means impunity for him and his clan," Rainsy wrote in an e-mail.
"But when survival is your life goal you cannot have any vision. This is why Cambodia under Hun Sen is going nowhere, if not down the drain, [through] corruption, poverty, human-rights abuses, in spite of competent civil servants, dedicated civil society and abundant natural resources," he wrote. "Hun Sen has had only two ways in dealing with his political opponents: Buy them or eliminate them either physically, [through] grenade attack, military coup [...] or politically, [through] sham lawsuits ... There is no example in the whole world of any country being a democratic and prosperous one with the same top leader for decades," Rainsy added.
According to historian Evan Gottesman, author of the 2003 book Cambodia After the Khmer Rouge, Hun Sen's durability is in itself exceptional. "The fact that the same man who led Cambodia in 1985 could also run the Cambodia of 2010 is remarkable," Gottesman said via e-mail. "Hun Sen's most impressive achievement was his ability to lead Cambodia from being an isolated communist country to economic and political integration with the non-communist countries of the region," he said.
"Hun Sen's greatest failure is his failure to promote, in fact, his willingness to undermine democratic institutions such as an independent judiciary, accountable security forces and a professional civil service," he added. According to Gottesman, three qualities are central to Hun Sen's hold on power: The first is ideological flexibility, which he said became apparent when Hun Sen decided to quickly abandon communist orthodox ideas in the late 1980s when it suited the situation.
"The second is a willingness to be absolutely ruthless with his opponents when he feels it necessary. The third is his cultivation of a patronage system that supports him," Gottesman wrote. "[A] lack of an independent judiciary or accountability for human-rights abuses persist because these hallmarks of modern democracies do not serve the interests of leaders who intend to remain in power indefinitely," he added. Reflecting on how the character of the 1980s communist PRK regime, many of whose officials are still in the government, influences Cambodia today, Gottesman said, "Cambodia's government is still built on patronage systems that support top officials, with Hun Sen at the top."
Rights and wrongs
International environmental watchdog Global Witness said in a February 2009 report entitled "Country for Sale" that its research indicated revenues from Cambodia's growing oil and mining industries were being siphoned off by a network of corrupt officials. "Rather than using these millions to lift its people out of poverty, Cambodia's government could instead continue to follow the example of neighboring Burma [Myanmar], where an autocratic elite uses money generated from the country's natural resource wealth to rule over an impoverished majority," the report warned.
Janice Beanland from rights group Amnesty International's Southeast Asia Team said in an e-mail that the protection of human rights in Cambodia under Hun Sen had come "a very long way" since the 1985 communist regime. However, she added that his government had often failed to undertake serious attempts to further improve the country's human-rights record, which remains poor. "[T]he lack of accountability and the culture of impunity that held sway [in the 1980s] remains in place to quite a degree. Judicial reform remains a plan, rule of law is not yet in place and for most Cambodians, there is very limited protection for human rights," Beanland said.
"[I]f the prime minister had wanted to institutionalize human-rights protection - through the legal system, the government administrative structures and independent institutions - he would have had the power to do so," she said. "The continued lack of integrity and independence within the court system, for instance, testifies to the limited human-rights commitment of the government."
Chea Vannath, a local independent political analyst, said Hun Sen's most important accomplishment was restoring peace in Cambodia, while adding that his premiership had lacked in economic management and improving child and maternal health. "His achievement is that he was able to bring peace to Cambodia, a very valuable achievement. His shortcoming is the economy, it moves but it stumbles ... It seems the economy could have done better, maternal and child health should also be better," she said.
Vannath said Hun Sen's strengths included his ability to cope and navigate a changing political climate and system, his ability to equitably share political power with others and his vigilance to not rest on his laurels."So far, another blessing is [his] good health," she added.
According to historian Henri Locard, who has taught at the Royal University of Phnom Penh since the early 1990s, one of Hun Sen's primary skills is his ability to fascinate the Cambodian public. "Hun Sen is a past-master in the control of rhetoric ... He is sure to hold the majority of the population by the invisible thread and the fascination of his words," Locard said. After the dark days of the Khmer Rouge and the communist government, Cambodians now "relish all their newly-acquired freedoms", he said, adding, "With one major exception: the freedom to challenge his all-embracing power ... there is a great deal of self-censorship exerted in this country."
Indeed, many civil society members and researchers consulted for this article, foreign and local, declined to comment directly on Hun Sen's premiership. CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap contested Hun Sen's record of human-rights abuses, tolerance of corruption and intimidation of political opponents. "Fighting corruption is not easy. Europe and the US have these problems too," he said. "Sam Rainsy breaks the law and then he says his rights are violated when he gets charged."
Yeap contended that Hun Sen and other CPP members had built up the country after its near-complete destruction by the Khmer Rouge. "I would like to ask you who could do it? [Opposition leaders] Sam Rainsy, Ranariddh, Kem Sokha couldn't do it ... They came later on, then they demanded this, they demanded that. They want freedom to attack everyone, everything. The CPP cannot allow them to do that."
On December 27, the 25th anniversary of his appointment as acting prime minister, Hun Sen met with members of his family at a hotel in Phnom Penh and contemplated a time when he no longer ruled Cambodia. Should that day come, according to Hun Sen, members of his powerful extended family could find the tables turned against them if they alienated ordinary Cambodians.
"If Hun Sen loses power, you will become a target for attacks if you do not follow my advice," he said during his televised remarks, advising his family that they should show charity and concern for the less fortunate. It was a rare reflection by the strongman leader on the eventual limits of his rule.
Paul Vrieze is a reporter with the Phnom Penh-based The Cambodia Daily.
Phann Ana, also a reporter at the newspaper, contributed to the reporting.