Wall Street Journal
July 6, 1999
A Complex Pragmatist, Hun SenBy BARRY WAIN
Remains Enigma With Elusive Beliefs
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia -- Will the real Hun Sen stand up?
Khmaoch coul, khmaoch cenh, Cambodians say -- the ghost goes in, the ghost comes out -- to explain their prime minister's changing moods. He swings dramatically from sinister outbursts to periods of calm and humor.
As Cambodia's leader for 14 years, he is one of Asia's longest-serving heads of government, yet is barely loved or understood. In the West he is vilified, contradictorily, as a former lieutenant of Khmer Rouge supremo Pol Pot -- and also as a stooge of Pol Pot's staunchest enemy, the Vietnamese. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a club that only reluctantly passes judgment on its neighbors, delayed Cambodia's membership in 1997 to censure him for ousting his rival, Prince Norodom Ranariddh.
But his methods have proved remarkably effective, propelling him to the top in a Darwinian process that has left only the toughest still standing. Now, as Cambodia's strongman, 46-year-old Mr. Hun Sen is shaping the future of one of the world's most battered and war-torn nations.
What emerges from an interview with Mr. Hun Sen, and conversations with associates and scholars, is a complex person deeply marked by almost 30 years of guerrilla warfare, revolution and social upheaval. A self-proclaimed democrat, he happily justifies deposing Prince Ranariddh. Recalling his emotional reunion 20 years ago with a wife and infant he thought were dead, he breaks down in tears.
Yet in the confident tones of a man who brooks no opposition, he also routinely refers to himself in the third person. "Hun Sen is afraid of no one," he declares. "In Cambodia, there is no one, except Hun Sen, who could imprison the son of the king."
World's Youngest Prime Minister
Born in 1952, the third of six children of peasant farmers who grew tobacco and rice in a village in Kompong Cham province, northeast of Phnom Penh, Mr. Hun Sen has lived a life that parallels his country's descent into hell. By 1964, at age 12, he had moved to Phnom Penh, where he was so poor he had to live in a pagoda while attending secondary school -- just as the Vietnam War was intensifying next door and fanning the flames of revolt throughout Indochina.
Cambodia was sucked into the inferno in 1970, when then-leader Prince Norodom Sihanouk was overthrown by U.S.-backed republican forces. Five years of vicious civil war later, the Khmer Rouge emerged victorious, beginning Pol Pot's 44-month reign, notorious for its "killing fields," which eventually cost an estimated two million lives. Vietnam invaded Cambodia in late 1978, driving the Khmer Rouge back into the jungle, where it carried on its armed rebellion for another two decades.
As a teenager amid the tumult, Mr. Hun Sen helped victims of government repression -- for example, by urging those whose land had been seized to resist -- plunging into political activism that he has maintained his whole life. Named foreign minister in the administration installed by Vietnam in 1979, he became the world's youngest prime minister at age 33 in 1985.
Finally, in 1993, when the United Nations sponsored Cambodia's first free election in more than 40 years, Mr. Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party came in second. He formed a coalition government with the winning Funcinpec party, led by Prince Ranariddh, son of the now-King Sihanouk.
They ran the country as co-premiers until July 1997, when Mr. Hun Sen's forces crushed troops loyal to the prince. Following the CPP's victory in an election last year, the two parties formed another coalition, though this time with Mr. Hun Sen as the sole prime minister.
Mr. Hun Sen committed himself to full-time political struggle in 1970, when he joined the communist-led underground fighting the right-wing republicans who had just toppled Prince Sihanouk. He was among tens of thousands of Cambodians who responded to a call to arms by the prince, who was heading an anti-Phnom Penh united front of communists and royalists from exile in Beijing.
Wounded five times in combat against republican troops, Mr. Hun Sen was hurt first during a U.S.-led South Vietnamese incursion in search of Viet Cong sanctuaries in 1970. His last injury -- in which his left eye was blinded by shrapnel -- happened on April 16, 1975, the day before his fellow insurgents defeated the republicans and captured Phnom Penh.
With a rhetorical flourish, Mr. Hun Sen sometimes declares in speeches that he lost his eye to U.S. bombing. But asked about it, he acknowledges that it was caused by an artillery round, unleashed almost two years after the U.S. had withdrawn and left the republicans to battle on alone.
"The person who fired that shell was my uncle," says Mr. Hun Sen, laughing at the memory. "We were fighting on opposite sides."
The Killing Fields
When the fanatically nationalistic Khmer Rouge took over and began emptying the cities with the aim of creating an agrarian Utopia, Mr. Hun Sen was still unconscious. After having a glass eye implanted, he continued to serve in the armed forces.
Political foes have long sought to implicate him in barbarous Khmer Rouge policies between 1975 and 1979. But independent researchers have indicated that he was a small cog in the machinery, a soldier in the regular army rather than the internal security apparatus that was responsible for most atrocities.
When the U.S. House of Representatives last October considered a resolution calling for Mr. Hun Sen to be indicted for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, two Cambodia specialists protested at what was seen as an attempt to tar him with a Pol Pot brush. Steve Heder, a lecturer in politics at the University of London, and Craig Etcheson, program director of the Los Angeles-based International Monitor Institute, said the accusations have no basis in fact or law.
"No credible documentation or oral testimony has ever been uncovered to substantiate such charges," they wrote in an open letter to the U.S. Congress. "And the specific allegations that have been made public to support them have proved groundless."
Although Mr. Hun Sen was a member of the Communist Party, nothing connects him with the Pol Pot faction that had a secret organization within the party and eventually controlled it. He has said he was appalled to learn later that his parents, who were supposed to benefit from "liberation," had been sent to labor camps. (They survived.)
Randomly Chosen Wife
In 1976, Mr. Hun Sen married Bun Sam Heang, a nurse whom he first met when he sought treatment for his war wounds. (She has changed her name to Bun Rany without public explanation in recent years, a fairly common practice in Cambodia.) They were forced to wed -- paired randomly -- in a ceremony with 12 other couples, as the Khmer Rouge found wives for maimed veterans. Their first baby died on the day of birth, after being accidentally dropped by untrained staff in a clinic.
For two years Mr. Hun Sen remained based in what the Khmer Rouge called the Eastern Zone, bordering Vietnam, reaching the modest rank of deputy commander of a regiment. Thousands of party followers in the zone were liquidated, as near-paranoid Khmer Rouge leaders searched for "traitors" within their ranks to blame for the regime's failures.
Mr. Hun Sen has said he decided to oppose the Khmer Rouge as early as late 1975, as he saw Cambodian society being destroyed. But he was forced to wait because his health was poor, and as most people lived in fear and attempted uprisings were regularly smashed. According to Belgian author and historian Raoul Jennar, Mr. Hun Sen avoided orders to suppress a revolt by the Cham Muslim minority, by claiming his eye required further treatment.
But his hour of reckoning came in June 1977, when he was ordered to attack Vietnam. Mr. Jennar says the delaying tactics used by Mr. Hun Sen and his regiment's two political officers created suspicion at provincial military headquarters. The other two were arrested and executed, Mr. Jennar says.
Shortly afterward, Mr. Hun Sen left his pregnant wife and crossed into Vietnam with a handful of his troops. He went home at the end of 1978, fighting with the Vietnamese army, which toppled the Khmer Rouge and put an end to Pol Pot's killing fields. Mr. Hun Sen takes pride in the long and successful campaign he waged to prevent the Khmer Rouge's return -- "the struggle of his life," as an acquaintance calls it.
Flanked by Brainpower
According to some scholars, political legitimacy in Cambodia historically derives from three elements: being an intellectual; a prince, or samdech, the highest conferred title, roughly equivalent to a British knighthood; and a veteran of armed struggle. Both Prince Ranariddh and Mr. Hun Sen, they note, like to give the impression of being all three.
Prince Ranariddh, who used to lecture in international law in France, strains to claim guerrilla credentials, since his leadership of a resistance movement opposed to Vietnamese occupation in the 1980s was essentially titular. For his part, Mr. Hun Sen worked hard to cover the two other bases.
When he was named foreign minister in 1979, he systematically recruited intellectuals -- basically, anyone who had graduated from prestigious colleges before 1975 and had managed to survive the Khmer Rouge tyranny. Dozens joined his Foreign Ministry team, leaving only a few others scattered throughout the rest of the bureaucracy.
Some of the best and brightest served on his personal staff, working as interpreters or aides. A number currently occupy prominent government posts, including Sok An, minister in the Council of Ministers; Uch Kiman, secretary of state for foreign affairs; Cham Prasidh, commerce minister; and Khieu Kanharith, secretary of state for information.
"What is astonishing for me is that he came from the jungle with almost no education," says Mr. Cham Prasidh, the commerce minister, who worked as Mr. Hun Sen's private secretary for almost seven years. Adds Mr. Khieu Kanharith, the deputy information minister: "He was open, not rigid with a great wall around his mind."
From friends, Mr. Hun Sen taught himself Vietnamese, and he can now get by in French and speak some English. King Sihanouk made him a samdech in 1993. Although he has only a lower-secondary-school education in Cambodia, he obtained a master's degree in 1990 and a doctorate the following year.
Both those degrees are from Hanoi, and while detractors ridicule the qualifications -- with good reason -- Vietnamese government officials confirm that Mr. Hun Sen could have accepted them on an honorary basis, without any study or research. Rather, he insisted on writing a thesis for each, they say.
The Ph.D is in political science, analyzing Cambodian society and the country's place in the international community. Never mind that one person who has read part of the dissertation, written in Khmer, describes it as "Marxist cant." The larger point, analysts say, is that he took the trouble to tackle it when he was running the country amid serious domestic strife.
"He's an entirely self-made man," says the University of London's Mr. Heder, and representative of "the new generation of Cambodian politicians, who grew up, in terms of their political education, in the period of war and revolution."
Many 'Hun Sen' Schools
Mr. Hun Sen has mastered a nationwide web of patronage that has evolved in the absence of effective institutions. For instance, he boasts he has built more than 2,200 schools, many of them bearing his name, and none paid for from the meager national budget.
But while he is king of a corrupt order, he isn't known for personal excess, or suspected of stashing funds in foreign bank accounts. At the same time, he has discarded anti-religious baggage associated with communism and "endowed temples, made pilgrimages and publicly observed all Buddhist holidays and rituals," as one commentator puts it.
Mr. Hun Sen also exploits what a number of observers call a pervasive mentality of fear, created by extreme brutality and systematic extermination of lives. People identified with him intimidate and murder opponents, apparently with impunity.
In the aftermath of Prince Ranariddh's overthrow, about 100 Funcinpec functionaries were captured and killed by CPP elements, some tortured to death. Mr. Hun Sen denies personal involvement, but his response carries a chilling edge: "If I had ordered the killing, I think it wouldn't be fewer than 3,000" who died, he says.
The bonds Mr. Hun Sen forged in the 18 months he was in Vietnam, as he and other exiles assembled an army from scratch, have proved critical in his subsequent rise. The men refer to themselves as the Generation of 77, and today they command elite police and combat units.
Facing periodic assassination attempts, Mr. Hun Sen needs their protection. Convinced that enemies want to kill him and his family, he lives not in one of two villas he owns in Phnom Penh, but in a fortified compound at Takhmau, about 20 kilometers outside the capital, in Kandal province.
His brother-in-law was murdered in 1996, and the following year a gunman fired on him from a house with an AK-47 assault rifle fitted with a silencer. In the latest ambush, a B-40 rocket planted by the roadside in the provincial capital of Siem Reap last September passed near Mr. Hun Sen's car, slammed into a wooden house and killed a youth.
Who wants him dead, Funcinpec or the Khmer Rouge?
"It is all the same, because they are all together," he says. "I think we could count even the trees. In order to destroy the CPP, they have to start with Hun Sen, because it is Hun Sen who is afraid of no one."
Under Mr. Hun Sen, Cambodia has moved from a pale version of Vietnamese socialism to a vivid example of Wild West capitalism. Natural resources, notably forestry and fisheries, have been rapaciously exploited, and state-owned assets have been sold for a song.
That isn't what the Vietnamese had in mind when they helped Mr. Hun Sen and a few other Cambodians form a communist party that later became the CPP. Hanoi sent hundreds of advisers, along with more than 100,000 troops, to protect the Phnom Penh authorities and ensure that they introduced central planning. But the Cambodians were reluctant communists, at least the Hun Sen faction of the party.
A turning point came in 1986, when Mr. Khieu Kanharith raised in the National Assembly, usually a rubber stamp, the sensitive matter of difficulties in the collectivization of agriculture. Mr. Hun Sen, who had taken over as premier the previous year, stood and supported him.
Further, he declared that the state must recognize the private ownership of property. Not only was he advocating a fundamental change at the heart of communist dogma, but he also urged his colleagues to amend the country's constitution on the spot and force the Central Committee of the party to comply. The party normally told the legislature what to do.
"This was absolutely unbelievable," says Mr. Khieu Kanharith, currently deputy information minister. "Many conservatives were very angry with him."
In 1991, two years after the last Vietnamese soldiers went home, the CPP, the Khmer Rouge and the two anticommunist resistance groups agreed to end Cambodia's civil war. The U.N.-brokered pact they signed in France provided for the introduction of liberal democracy and private enterprise, operating under the rule of law.
"The free-market economy isn't built by the Paris Peace Agreement," says Mr. Hun Sen. "It is built by the conviction of Hun Sen."
An Elusive Core
Amid the constant turmoil and maneuvering, Mr. Hun Sen's core beliefs and priorities remain elusive. Asked about his vision for Cambodia, he launches into a detailed explanation of six major tasks facing the government.
They turn on ambitious plans to reform public administration, including overhauling the judicial system and halving the size of the armed forces, as well as promoting democracy and human rights and strengthening the rule of law. But he offers no explanation of how, say, the rule of law might clash with the patronage networks that have developed precisely because of the absence of legal institutions.
Some diplomats who see Mr. Hun Sen regularly describe an intense and complex person, with "a million facts and historical lessons in his head," as one puts it. Obsessive, preoccupied with the country's problems, he never lets go of work.
"Hun Sen talked to me once for an hour about water pumps," says a Western ambassador, "He's fixated on irrigation."
Yet it may be asking too much to expect Mr. Hun Sen to espouse a sophisticated political and economic philosophy. He should be viewed as a transitional figure "between Cambodia's totalitarian past and a hopefully more democratic future," says the International Monitor Institute's Mr. Etcheson.
"This man isn't led by ideology," adds Mr. Jennar, the Belgian author and historian. "He is a peasant and he has a peasant's pragmatism."