The leader who goes on and on

August 18, 2008 at 2:54 am Leave a comment, UK – August 17, 2008

Hun Sen brought peace to Cambodia but he has sacrificed the poor on the altar of an economic boom

With yet another election victory in the bag, Cambodia’s prime minister, Hun Sen, is now entering his thirty-fourth year in power. Hun Sen draws his inspiration not from south-east Asia’s more democratic leaders, but from Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, who used dictatorial methods to build a modern, prosperous but tightly-controlled island city-state. Still only 57, Hun Sen has now served two years longer than Lee Kuan Yew – and even muses that he could still be premier at 90 if the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) keeps winning elections. It is this prospect, however fanciful, that alarms many educated Cambodians.

Trade unionists, opposition parties, and human rights workers have well-founded fears that this landslide election victory could lead to a clampdown on the right to protest and strike in Cambodia – human rights that were crushed long ago in Singapore under Lee Kuan Yew’s notorious Internal Security Act.

Hun Sen is the son of a poor farming family in Kompong Cham province, and a former Khmer Rouge officer who rebelled against Pol Pot, fled to Vietnam in 1977 and returned two years later as foreign minister, backed by the Vietnamese army. Still younger than any of his Asean counterparts, he now ranks as their most experienced prime minister. And he achieved all this despite losing an eye in the final battle to defeat the US-backed military regime of General Lon Nol back in 1975.

Only Prince Norodom Sihanouk’s rule in the 1960s can be compared with Hun Sen’s in terms of its strong leadership and its success in defining the politics and development of the country. Between these two eras, the nation was brought to the brink of extinction by the secret US bombing of Cambodia authored by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, which ultimately helped Pol Pot’s forces to seize power.

Now, after a period of survival in the 1980s – moulded in part by Vietnamese communism mixed with a revival of Cambodian culture – everything is changing. The free market reigns supreme. Land and property speculation is everything, heritage is for sale, and the US dollar is king. Land that was owned by poor farmers in the 1980s is now up for grabs – and indeed frequently is grabbed by a few tycoons linked to Hun Sen. The PM is generally regarded as part of a nouveau riche kleptocracy that siphons off foreign aid and ignores protests about human rights. But defenders of the CPP, and many of the people who have just voted for it, would point out that under his leadership the country is now at peace. Schools, roads and bridges have been built. The economy is booming, and the CPP has been justly rewarded. Few international observers seriously doubt that the democratic will swung behind the CPP, even allowing for unbalanced TV media coverage. (Unlike neighbouring countries, all Cambodia elections since 1993 have been monitored by international observers.)

In the 1980s Hun Sen – who was widely derided as a Vietnamese puppet at the time – had two priorities. The first was to stop the Khmer Rouge from returning to power (they were backed militarily by China and diplomatically by the west). The second was to rebuild a shattered nation.

The fragile government in Phnom Penh not only kept Pot’s forces at bay, but their Vietnamese backers speedily restored some basic services. After 1979 hospitals, schools, markets, Buddhist temples and cinemas – closed by the Khmer Rouge – were rapidly reopened by Hun Sen’s government. Hun Sen initiated peace talks with Cambodia’s exiled Prince Sihanouk, which eventually led to his return. He proved to be an inspirational leader, but much western reporting during the Cold War focused on the partisan belief that Cambodia was under foreign occupation. There was an abysmal failure to report the real story of a nation’s dramatic recovery, despite the UN’s cynical denial of aid to a desperately poor country.

I first met Hun Sen in 1981, and respect his achievements in helping to bring about the rebirth of his nation and ending the Khmer Rouge terror in the countryside. But from the point of view of public services and the treatment of the poor, his record since the 1993 elections leaves a great deal to be desired. His failure to build an equitable Cambodian society that all can share in, based on social and economic justice – not just a real estate boom – is lamentable.

It is strange that Hun Sen, who shares his humble beginnings with Brazil’s Lula and Bolivia’s Evo Morales, has no agenda for the poor, no instinct to curb the grotesque excesses of the ruling elite, and has made no attempt to protect the small farmers that he is descended from. For all his intelligence and political skills, Hun Sen’s success was based on survival, not a vision of the future. Bolstered by the recent discovery of offshore oil, the CPP has no development model other than the prescriptions of the IMF and World Bank, which are easily grafted onto the corruption and get rich-quick mentality of his business cronies, military generals and his police chiefs.

If he had gracefully stepped down from power in 1998, after the final surrender of the Khmer Rouge, Hun Sen’s place in history would surely have been assured. Unless he changes tack, the dispossessed may have to resort to other means to achieve justice.


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