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November 30, 2000

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A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

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From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
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Hun Sen has long plotted the Khmer Rouge's demise. Now, an amnesty for Ieng Sary may presage the endgame

By Dominic Faulder, Phnom Penh

A ROUGHLY SURFACED ROAD leads from Kandal's provincial town, Takhmau, to the Vietnamese border. Built by the Khmer Rouge, it is popular with smugglers bound for nearby Phnom Penh. Five kilometers along the road is a district where the elite of the Heng Samrin regime kept weekend dachas during the 1980s. The road suddenly widens here with hard shoulders, and stopping is forbidden. A small military checkpoint marks the entrance to compounds hidden behind dense vegetation. At night, fluorescent street lights jar eerily with the inky blackness of the surrounding countryside.

Locals refer to the area's principal compound as "Roun Khlar," the Tiger's Den. My driver expresses alarm when I ask him to take me there. Built in 1989, the two-story home is the main residence of Hun Sen, Cambodia's feared and revered second prime minister. The building is large but without a hint of extravagance. Above the spartan entrance is a simply paneled reception room with a thick peach carpet and chairs of carved wood. Two big artificial plants stand sentinel on each side of the largest chair.

This is Hun Sen's seat of power. He welcomes me cordially before breaking open a fresh pack of 555 cigarettes. Slightly corpulent, he exudes vigor and authority beyond his 44 years. His olive complexion is clear, and he has the soft clean hands of a statesman, not of a peasant's son or of a former guerrilla. A reminder that his next visitor is waiting downstairs is dismissed with a flick of his hand.

Hun Sen has been at war with the Maoist Khmer Rouge since 1977. He jumps to the subject immediately, asking for my views on Ieng Sary's extraordinary press conference along the Thai-Cambodian border. The former Khmer Rouge Central Committee member, who is seeking to renounce his days as a guerrilla, had flatly denied any responsibility for the holocaust which left up to 2 million Cambodians dead in the late 1970s. "The important point is that nobody can now defend the [Khmer Rouge] regime of genocide," Hun Sen explains in measured tones with the mellow resonance of a heavy smoker. "Right now Ieng Sary accuses Pol Pot of genocide and Pol Pot accuses Ieng Sary. It means that the genocidal regime existed."

Hun Sen likes to cut to the quick. A chess enthusiast with a sharp and cunning mind, he has slowly broken down his arch nemesis, the Khmer Rouge, under whom he once served as a local army commander. Hun Sen went on to help lead the Vietnamese forces that ousted Cambodia's murderous regime, was a key player in the administration that fought the Khmer Rouge in the jungles, and helped push through the Paris peace talks in the late 1980s that eventually split the Maoists from their royalist allies. Now the government-orchestrated split of Ieng Sary from still-radical Khmer Rouge elements may have set up the endgame that Hun Sen has long planned.

As he comments on the Khmer Rouge, he draws from his breast pocket Ieng Sary's amnesty due to be signed next day by King Norodom Sihanouk. For a brief moment Hun Sen is lost in thought surveying the historic document. It contains everything Ieng Sary could reasonably want: his 1979 death sentence overturned, his property rights restored and, like all other defecting Khmer Rouge, an amnesty for being a member of the illegal organization. In chess parlance, one might say the government has foregone one Khmer Rouge knight in order to ultimately checkmate Brother No. 1, Pol Pot.

Significantly, though, the document makes no reference to genocide or crimes against humanity. Ieng Sary could hardly have expected an explicit amnesty for crimes he says he did not commit or even know about. According to Hun Sen, Ieng Sary is unlikely to have any political role in mainstream society. When asked about how to deal with Pol Pot and other Khmer Rouge leaders still in the jungle, the co-premier chooses a fishing allusion. "I think we should not talk about how many kilograms of fish to cook, or whether to fry or to bake, at a time when the fish are still in the water," he says. "If we do, it's like throwing something into the water that will frighten all the fish away" .

Who is this grandmaster of political manipulation? The question baffles Hun Sen watchers as the populist co-premier increasingly retreats behind heavily guarded gates. Another nickname for the Tiger's Den is the Fortress of Kandal. Security is tight, with 300 crack troops and 60 military policemen in its garrison. Like Cambodia's "first prime minister," Norodom Ranariddh, "second PM" Hun Sen has at least five armored personnel carriers and a pair of tanks devoted to his protection. In March, it seemed like the co-premiers needed as much protection from each other as from anyone else. That was when Ranariddh, son of the constitutional monarch King Sihanouk, complained that Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party was not sharing power with his royalist FUNCINPEC party as agreed following the 1993 U.N.-sponsored elections.

Hun Sen never used to be a recluse. "[Gen.] Lon Nol was toppled [in 1975] because he didn't know the price of a bowl of Chinese soup," claims a former intimate, who like most people in Cambodia refuses to tie his name to any comments about the second PM. "Hun Sen used to personally check the prices in the market." In 1989, two foreigners were drawn into friendly conversation by a stranger at a Bang Koek lakeside restaurant, then one of the only decent places to eat in Phnom Penh. It belatedly dawned on the pair that they were talking to the world's youngest prime minister. Then 37, Hun Sen was unguarded, casually dressed and without his spectacles.

These days, however, Hun Sen rarely ventures out. "Nobody can understand what he's been doing lately," says an observer. "Is he cracking down or cracking up?" An important turning point for Hun Sen, some believe, was a botched coup attempt in July 1994 involving King Sihanouk's playboy son Prince Norodom Chakkrapong. "People around him say [Hun Sen] was out of his mind with anger," one observer says. Disturbed by a series of supposed new threats and conspiracies, he has retreated ever further into his rural lair, which he whips around in a golf buggy. He sits up late into the night planning his next political moves. Among his diversions are vigorous games of chess on Sundays. "Playing chess and politics -- what's the difference?" asks a Cambodian politician. "Both are stressful when you are trying to win."

Hun Sen has lived in real mortal fear for much of the past 25 years. His formal schooling ended when he left a pagoda in the capital to join the resistance to the U.S.-backed Lon Nol regime that unseated Sihanouk. "I heard [the Prince's] appeal in 1971 from Beijing to the youth of Kampuchea to join the underground, so I joined," Hun Sen recalled in a 1989 interview.

Like many who allied themselves with the Khmer Rouge at that time, he was enraged by heavy U.S. bombing that killed up to 400,000 Cambodians, the vast majority innocent non-combatants. "I did not join the Khmer Rouge," he said last year. "I joined to fight Americans who were bombing our country. We had to fight." Hun Sen was wounded five times, most seriously on April 16, 1975, when Khmer Rouge forces were closing a noose around the capital. It cost him his left eye and, as Sihanouk once said, left him with "a piratical look attractive to women."

During his guerrilla years, Hun Sen developed an ability to study diligently at night by the light of a resin lamp. Observers in Phnom Penh believe he still sometimes makes do with as little as two hours sleep, driving himself to extreme exhaustion for which he has been hospitalized in Paris and Tokyo. In the late 1980s after he became prime minister in the Vietnamese-installed Heng Samrin government, East Bloc diplomats rated him by far the brightest Cabinet member.

It was during this crucial period that he defied more conservative members of his communist government to push the peace process forward. Few, including himself, believe that the Paris Peace Accords of 1991 could have been achieved with anyone other than him representing the Phnom Penh side. At one point, he was even rumored to be brushing up on royal Khmer in readiness for the day Sihanouk would return to Cambodia. Since 1991, he has applied himself to learning English, which diplomats say he speaks more fluently than he lets on. His parting words to me were in clear English.

The eastern zone forces in the Khmer Rouge, to which Hun Sen belonged, may have been inclined to a more nationalistic than political agenda. Some, described as Sihanoukists, wore khaki rather than the black uniforms of the hardline Khmer Rouge elsewhere. Nor did they support the confused, inhumane evacuation of Phnom Penh after its fall in 1975. While Hun Sen himself was an invalid at that apocalyptic moment, he was not a willing accomplice when he returned to active service. "My movement was composed of many different movements with the same aim of fighting against Pol Pot," he says. "I do not understand why I was also called Khmer Rouge. I was always against the Khmer Rouge."

By mid-1977, he says he was totally disillusioned with the world's most revolutionary government. That made him a potential target for the ruthless purging squads of Ta Mok, Pol Pot's most trusted lieutenant who still commands hardcore Khmer Rouge forces. Before he defected to Vietnam in June 1977, Hun Sen said that he was in command of about 4,000 men.

His return to Cambodia as a head of the victorious Vietnamese-backed forces that ousted the Khmer Rouge plunged him into a life of different perils. A former aide recalls how he traveled abroad in the early 1980s as foreign minister: he would transit via Hanoi from which point Soviet agents would chaperon him to distant client states. Even far from home, he would often change beds in the middle of the night. During peace talks in Jakarta in 1988, he would take colleagues out into the open air to avoid possible bugs. The years of pressure appear to be taking their toll. "He was very good company," recalls the former aide. "But when he matured, he didn't like anything that gave him headaches. He can't stand any other view, no matter how weak it is."

There appears to be at least two Hun Sens. "Every time he's in public, he's laughing, joking and sardonic," notes one observer. "He's a very canny, populist politician." But Hun Sen's edginess away from the public gaze has earned him a reputation for bursts of volcanic temper. In a fit of rage, he is reputed to have once shot out an airconditioning unit at the Council of Ministers. He is also credited with destroying television sets that bring unwelcome news. In 1993, he allegedly demolished a TV that reported his party trailing FUNCINPEC during elections. Says one of Hun Sen's Cambodian critics: "He has this very bad personality and ambition on one side. On the other side, he's very clever at selling himself to people he meets."

Hun Sen's jumpiness seems to have permeated right down to the security guards at his official residence in the heart of Phnom Penh. The soldiers are feared for their willingness to act without thought. Last year, four young foreigners on motorbikes were hurt when guards opened up with wildly inaccurate fire. Only seconds before, the Malaysian ambassador had to duck through the gates of his compound next door. In another incident, the Filipino ambassador was prized out of his limousine at gunpoint. He was rescued by his U.S. counterpart and host, Charles Twining, who was holding a party.

Though violence has dogged Cambodia for years, Hun Sen's connection to it has always remained tenuous. Talk of incitement flickered when the Khmer Rouge's political representative, Khieu Samphan, fled the country soon after arriving in Phnom Penh in November 1992 to participate in U.N.-sponsored elections. He was greeted by a remarkably well-organized "spontaneous" protest at which Hun Sen turned up. Khieu Samphan was almost strung up on a ceiling fan in front of a gaggle of French photographers panicking because they had run out of flash batteries. Hun Sen was outside with a megaphone, and eventually took credit for defusing a crisis that nobody ever suggested he had orchestrated. Khieu Samphan, mopping his bleeding brow with a spare pair of underpants, was whisked off to the airport and back to Thailand.

Over the last 18 months, Hun Sen has made a disturbing number of grimly accurate predictions of violence against others, as well as claims of plots against himself. Most came in rambling and remarkably frank speeches in which he seems to unburden himself. "Every time before something happens, you hear his comments," says a Cambodian politician. For instance, Hun Sen correctly predicted a grenade attack on a meeting of the Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party last year.

Later in 1995, former foreign minister Prince Norodom Sirivudh, the king's half brother, was forced into exile. He was subsequently found guilty in absentia of being involved in an alleged plot to assassinate Hun Sen at a palace party with a pistol, or elsewhere, supposedly with a B40 rocket launcher. In May, the co-premier turned up an alleged plot to kill his children at school in France and the U.S. The latest assassination plot was supposedly hatched by Cambodian expatriates in Canada.

Tensions increased earlier this year when Tun Bun Ly, a journalist responsible for repeated editorial attacks on the two prime ministers, was gunned down in broad daylight on the day his paper published another onslaught. Cautious observers question whether Hun Sen would personally instigate violence. But occasionally he has all but condoned it. When a newspaper office was ransacked by his supporters, Hun Sen declared: "I am not encouraging the people to attack any other people, but if they go ahead I won't stop them." At other times, he has openly threatened foreign embassies with demonstrations. But apart from a minor protest at the Australian ambassador's residence earlier this year, nothing has ever transpired.

One Cambodian politician describes Hun Sen as forthright: "He airs his feelings publicly." Others put it more bluntly. "He shares some traits with Mussolini," says a Cambodian returnee. "Look at him when he makes speeches. He tries to arouse the cruder tendencies in people. It's a bit like Sihanouk in the old days, but Sihanouk was much more cultured." Because of the trouble that tends to befall his critics, few people, apart from former finance minister Sam Rainsy, dare attack Hun Sen on the record. Even allies tend to keep their remarks on the lighter side. When Ranariddh recently spotted unfamiliar sharpshooters on nearby buildings, he quipped to reporters that everyone could relax because Hun Sen was away for the week in Singapore.

Even in the darkest moments, though, the other Hun Sen tends to shine through. "He's ambitious, intense, he has vision," says another Asian diplomat who asked not to be named. "He wants change, and he wants to be known as the person who turned things around." He has set about promoting something of a cult of personality. More than 220 schools in the country have been restored or built in his name. "I was a son of poor peasants; I understand very well what it is to be poor and in difficulties," Hun Sen explains. His school-building, he says "is like my revenge, not against anyone but against poverty." On Jan. 7, the second prime minister opened a public garden in his name in the capital. Like many of the schools, Hun Sen Park -- a somewhat dull rectangle of lawns and paths near the river -- was built with funds solicited from prominent businessmen.

"He believes there's nothing wrong with taking money from big businessmen to build roads and schools," says a Cambodian politician. "But he's not interested in money or gifts for himself." Others see his Robin Hood-like schemes as examples of how Hun Sen takes advantage of distortions in a shattered system. His charity work is "all very beautiful," says an Asian diplomat. "But what happens to planning and taxes? The businessmen say they've already given at the church of Hun Sen." An Asian diplomat adds: "In Cambodia, there is no capitalism, no socialism. The only 'ism' is opportunism. Hun Sen's a pragmatist."

The co-premier certainly regards himself as pro-business, and has a reputation for doing his homework, delivering on promises and saying no when he can't. "He's quite a nice person to talk with," observes the Cambodian returnee. "He has plenty of time to listen, and he needs people to like him. Maybe he doesn't listen, but he gives satisfaction, unlike Ranariddh." A senior Asian diplomat concurs. "Ranariddh is approachable but it can be a monologue," he says. "Hun Sen, when he agrees to see you, has already found out why you want to see him. A meeting with him is mutually purposeful."

Some Western diplomats fault Ranariddh for emulating his father's medieval inclination to rely on force of personality and intrigue, playing all sides off against each other. Hun Sen is never the dilettante; he always makes sure he wins. A prime example was when he refused to allow his party's defeat at the ballot box in 1993 to push him from power.

Hun Sen also seems determined to lay to rest the issue of his involvement with the Khmer Rouge. Last year, he offered to place himself on trial to defend his role during the period. Significantly, an investigation of the genocide conducted by Yale University, like other scholarly efforts, has uncovered nothing to contradict Hun Sen's account.

These days there is no doubt he is detested by the Khmer Rouge, who regularly blast his "two-headed, three-eyed government" in their radio propaganda. To them, he is "a puppet fanning the flames of Vietnam's aggressive war in Cambodia and threatening the other nations of Southeast Asia." Despite his own vehement hatred of the Khmer Rouge, Hun Sen has supported an amnesty program for its rank and file. He still astonished many in recent weeks by pushing through a royal amnesty for Ieng Sary with such haste that even King Sihanouk protested that Parliament had not been adequately consulted. The government, Hun Sen says, will judge each Khmer Rouge leader's bid to join the mainstream on a case-by-case basis. "If their good deeds are enough to pay back their mistakes, we would also consider that." Although the troubling issue of justice for the holocaust's victims appears to have been sidelined for the moment, it is his somewhat unexpected conciliatory capacity that may well be Hun Sen's most important contribution to Cambodia's longterm recovery.

As I am about to leave, the grand strategist talks again about chess. His old partner became sick and died three months ago, he says. "I have a new partner, but he's a bit trickier. He used to steal my pawns. I've got only one eye and only have good sight on one side." It is a rare admission of weakness, yet he laughs. "He takes some of my pawns, but I also have my trick of offering him liquor." These are just playful comments, but I can't help thinking of Ieng Sary, the intoxicated Maoist, and all the stolen pawns he may be hiding.

-- Dominic Faulder is an Asiaweek contributor based in Bangkok

This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home



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COVER: President Joseph Estrada gives in to the chanting crowds on the streets of Manila and agrees to make room for his Vice President

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COVER: The DoCoMo generation - Japan's leading mobile phone company goes global

Bandwidth Boom: Racing to wire - how underseas cable systems may yet fall short

TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness

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