Hun Sen: the man who foiled the UN

The Weekend Australian - - WORLD - THE ECON­O­MIST

You don’t get to be the world’s long­est-serv­ing prime min­is­ter by leav­ing your fu­ture up to vot­ers. In­stead Hun Sen, who has led Cam­bo­dia since 1985, re­lies on cur­tail­ing their op­tions.

His govern­ment is pe­ti­tion­ing the courts to dis­solve the Cam­bo­dia Na­tional Res­cue Party, the only op­po­si­tion group that threat­ens his grip.

As it is, the leader of the CNRP, Kem Sokha, is in jail, on charges of trea­son. His pre­de­ces­sor, Sam Rainsy, has fled the coun­try, as have about half of the party’s 55 MPs.

The head of the only other party bar Hun Sen’s Cam­bo­dian Peo­ple’s Party to win con­trol of any lo­cal coun­cils in com­mune elec­tions this year is also be­hind bars. The evis­cer­a­tion of the op­po­si­tion en­sures that the CPP will romp home in next year’s par­lia­men­tary elec­tion. The Prime Min­is­ter re­cently said that he planned to re­main in charge for an­other 10 years.

It is not just politi­cians who are in Hun Sen’s sights. His govern­ment has passed laws mak­ing it im­pos­si­ble for labour unions and other pres­sure groups to crit­i­cise it with­out risk­ing clo­sure. It has shut down an in­de­pen­dent news­pa­per and sev­eral ra­dio sta­tions. For­eign NGOs have been ex­pelled from the coun­try. The army has threat­ened po­lit­i­cal pro­test­ers with vi­o­lence, and has vowed to stand by the CPP “for­ever”.

This is not the out­come the UN had in mind 25 years ago when it un­der­took an am­bi­tious mis­sion to res­cue Cam­bo­dia from decades of vi­o­lence and mis­ery.

Hun Sen was al­ready Prime Min­is­ter then, but was locked in an in­con­clu­sive civil war with monar­chist mili­tias and their al­lies, the rem­nants of the blood­thirsty Kh­mer Rouge regime, which the CPP had over­thrown in 1979. All th­ese groups agreed to al­low the UN to de­ploy a huge peace­keep­ing force, hold an elec­tion and help es­tab­lish a new, demo­cratic govern­ment.

It was the first time the UN had ever taken over the ad­min­is­tra­tion of a whole coun­try. It was sup­posed to be a demon­stra­tion of the great things that the or­gan­i­sa­tion could achieve in the new, post-Cold-War world. Sadly, it now looks like a cau­tion­ary tale.

Although Hun Sen pro­fessed to ac­cept the UN’s agenda, in prac­tice he worked to frus­trate it.

He threat­ened to reignite the civil war un­less he was al­lowed to stay on as “sec­ond prime min­is­ter”, even though he lost the elec­tion that the UN over­saw. He later launched a coup against the “first prime min­is­ter”.

Although he has con­tin­ued to hold reg­u­lar elec­tions, ev­ery time an op­po­si­tion party looks strong enough to chal­lenge him, he finds a way to hob­ble it, not least by telling vot­ers that the choice is him or war.

All this is a ter­ri­ble waste — most ob­vi­ously of money. The UN’s 20-month ad­min­is­tra­tion in 1992-93 cost $US1.6 bil­lion — equiv­a­lent to $US2.5bn ($3.2bn) to­day and enough to give ev­ery Cam­bo­dian 66 per cent of the av­er­age in­come per per­son at the time. Western donors have since spent bil­lions more to help strengthen Cam­bo­dia’s democ­racy. Hun Sen has left them lit­tle to show for it.

It is also a missed op­por­tu­nity. Un­like Afghanistan, say, where in­ter­na­tional ef­forts at na­tion­build­ing have foundered in part be­cause the coun­try is racked by in­sur­gency, Cam­bo­dia is at peace.

It also has few eth­nic or sec­tar­ian rifts to po­larise na­tional pol­i­tics. And Cam­bo­dia, although poor, has boom­ing gar­ment and tourism in­dus­tries, which have helped the econ­omy to grow rapidly in re­cent years.

A func­tion­ing democ­racy does not seem like a pipe dream.

Western gov­ern­ments have found it harder to get Hun Sen’s at­ten­tion since he struck up a close friend­ship with China, which is now both the big­gest donor to Cam­bo­dia and its big­gest source of in­vest­ment.

But Western aid is still im­por­tant to the govern­ment, as are the Western firms that buy much of the out­put of Cam­bo­dia’s gar­ment fac­to­ries and the Western tourists who visit its tem­ples.

Hun Sen would be vul­ner­a­ble, in other words, to a vig­or­ous in­ter­na­tional cam­paign to in­duce him to re­store democ­racy — he just does not ex­pect one. That may be the most de­press­ing de­vel­op­ment of all.

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