Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Why has the West tolerated Hun Sen?

Why has the West tolerated Hun Sen?
Published 21 Jan 2015 

Amid the range of articles marking Hun Sen's 30 years as Cambodia's prime minister, including Elliot Brennan's in The Interpreter and a similarly thoughtful piece by Mark Dodd in the Financial Review of 19 January drawing on personal experience in Cambodia, there has been very little reflection on why the West has tolerated Hun Sen.

After all, the criticisms being aired of him today have applied over most if not the whole of his domination of Cambodian politics since 1993. There have been an almost endless number of occasions when he has demonstrated his readiness to preside over corruption, brutality and a readiness to subvert popular will.

The most notable of the latter was his refusal to cede power to the opposition FUNCINPEC party in the UN-sponsored elections of 1993. Four years later, in 1997, he sanctioned the use of force in a putsch that ended any possibility of Prince Ranariddh's playing an effective role in Cambodia's politics, while Hun Sen's forces carried out a large number of extra-judicial killings. This all took place after men undoubtedly linked to Hun Sen's regime mounted a fatal grenade attack against a march led by political rival Sam Rainsy.

The extent to which Hun Sen, his extended family and  long-time cronies have been associated with corrupt activity in relation to the illegal exploitation of timber reserves has been revealed in detail by Global Witness, an NGO now banned from Cambodia. A broader pattern of land grabbing for favoured associates of the regime has become so common that it receives almost no external commentary.

So far as foreign aid to Cambodia is concerned, Sebastian Strangio in his new and excellent book Hun Sen's Cambodia has observed that, 'since the first donor meeting (of the Cambodia Development Cooperation Forum) was held in Tokyo in 1992' Cambodia has shown 'a more or less complete lack of progress on various reform "benchmarks" formulated by its Western "partners"'. The result, as Strangio summarises, is that very little money has reached those it was supposed to help. Western governments continue to give aid to Cambodia almost regardless of the regime's behaviour.

So what explains this state of affairs? It is hard to go past two old fashioned words: 'shame' and 'guilt'.  [fold]

Cambodia's involvement in the Vietnam War led to a widespread view in the West that accepted, and in many cases welcomed, the overthrow of the Lon Nol regime in 1975. Anything had to be better than what had gone before, particularly in view of Nixon's 'secret bombing' of Cambodia. Indeed, among 'progressive' opinion the Khmer Rouge regime that took power in April 1975 was lavishly praised. Those of us who took a publicly contrary view were very much in the minority. This was despite the fact that Henry Kamm of the New York Times documented what was happening within Cambodia in detail from July 1975 onwards. When other observers such as Francois Ponchaud wrote of what he had seen when Pol Pot took power in his Cambodia: Year Zero, his views were sharply discounted by such French luminaries as Jean Lacouture. When the full awfulness of the regime became apparent to even the most biased observer after the Vietnamese overthrew Pol Pot in January 1979, the result was a widespread feeling of shame and guilt.

This sense of guilt has persisted to the extent that there is still a reluctance by Western governments, Australia included, to talk about and deal with Cambodia in a frank fashion. Cambodia is treated as if it is just another Southeast Asian country. But it is not. No other ASEAN country has a leadership closely associated with an earlier genocidal regime. While no one has ever proved that Hun Sen, when he was an army officer during the Khmer Rouge regime, committed atrocities, little public discussion has taken place of the fact that he and many of his associates in high positions worked for two years or more while Pol Pot was in power, before defecting to Vietnam.

In the light of the most recent elections when his party suffered a major loss of votes, Hun Sen's survival as Cambodia's leader is facing the prospect of real challenge, not as the result of any action by the West but because of domestic reaction to his style of government. Some might argue that this is the best way for change to occur. Whether this is so, the West's failures in relation to Cambodia will be a reason for reflection for many years to come.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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