01 January 2002
[Recently Samdech Hun Sen granted an interview on a number of issues to Cambodia Daily Publisher Bernard Krisher, Editor-in-Chief Dave Bloss and Associate Editor Lor Chandara. The interview provided here follows was published in ‘The Cambodia Daily’ from January 01 through to January 04, 2002]
A. Hun Sen Argues Democracy Avoids Violence
As Prime Minister Hun Sen begins his fifth year in office, he ushers in a New Year beset with challenges, including the supervision of commune elections, an imposed ban on logging, continued demobilization of armed forces and a possible future reduction in foreign donor aid due to the uncertain world economy. He spoke for three hours with Cambodia Daily Publisher Bernard Krisher, Editor-in-Chief Dave Bloss and Associate Editor Lor Chandara.
Up close, Hun Sen is soft-spoken, disciplined, intelligent and charismatic. He moved easily through a wide range of issues, from how world aid to Afghanistan might affect assistance to Cambodia to the cruelty of the Khmer Rouge. He also discussed his plans for developing Cambodia’s economy, his criteria for a future King, and his thoughts about Cambodia’s past and future.
The interview was held in Hun Sen’s office in his Phnom Penh residence, which is businesslike but hardly luxurious. CNN’s home page was visible on a computer atop a row of desks along one wall nest to the fax machines. His responses were in Khmer and interpreted into English.
Q: Since the Paris Peace Accords were signed, has Cambodia achieved sufficient progress?
One of our major achievements was the elimination of secessionist areas and complete peace in our country. Now all [the warring factions] live under the same roof of the constitution. Through this newly created constitution, we established a constitutional monarchy. King Norodom Sihanouk’s second accession was one of the important events. The constitution also established a democratic pluralism system which is a firm foundation for our national development.
Another achievement is the collapse of the political and military organization of the Khmer Rouge which existed for half a century. Did anyone expect the Khmer Rouge to come to such a rapid end?’ They were recognized by the UN, which bowed down to them, but in the end they were ruined. This may be a unique case in the world in which such a war ended without bloodshed and we were able to arrest the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and [accept the] defection of leaders as high as the head of state, prime minister, chairman of their national assembly, and other top leaders of the Khmer Rouge.
Another accomplishment following the Khmer Rouge collapse was justice for the Cambodian people through demands for the trial of Khmer Rouge leaders. It’s unfortunate that in a circumstance where they faced destruction, justice was not given to the Cambodian people by the UN and a number of countries. Instead, they stampeded on this justice. But now, such justice is really being provided to the Cambodian people.
Another accomplishment is the end to Cambodia’s political isolation. We can now integrate ourselves into the international community as well as Asean.
These are some major achievements. But I could name 50 more.
Q: Looking ahead 10 years in Cambodia, what would you like to see retained and what should be changed?
The Cambodian border has not been changed. We have preserved the same surface that is on the map kept at the UN since 1964. Our good culture and customs have been preserved and developed. The constitutional monarchy and multi-party liberal democracy shall be preserved; even the National Assembly cannot amend these points. Our national motto, Nation, Religion and King, should not be changed.
We need to reform the armed forces, administration, the judicial and court systems, as well as public finance. We need to improve our peoples’ living conditions, both materially and mentally.
Q: Forty years ago, King Sihanouk performed a delicate act of balancing Cambodia’s relations wish China, Vietnam and the West what is the best way to maintain such a balance today?
People say I follow the same path as King Sihanouk did in seeking a balance. But the situation is different today. I have no need to seek balance since the Cold War is over. We try our best to establish relations with all countries.
Some people say Hun Sen is playing the Chinese card, but I think China is not a card to be played by anyone. China will not allow that. We very much appreciate our relations with China now, and we would like to have the same relations with the US and other countries.
Even with neighboring countries, I don’t seek to improve relations from the East to counter the West, or from the West to counter the East.
Q: For the past eight years Cambodia has been governed under a democratic political system. But in the region, you find around yourself countries like Vietnam, Burma and Laos that don’t trust or operate such systems. Other regional leaders, past and present, such as Suharto and Lee Kuan Yew and Mahathir, have argued that liberal democracy is not compatible with Asian values. From your own experience, does democracy work in Cambodia and does it benefit people, or should it be changed?
The geography, traditions and psychology differ from country to country and region to region. Even within Asean there are differences in culture, religion and race.
Except in sports, there is no international standard which you can apply universally.
I always object when people talk to us about international standards. Even in the Francophone and Anglo-Saxon judicial systems there are big differences; one has investigating judges and the other doesn’t. Only a military coup could eradicate the constitutional monarchy and liberal multiparty democracy, but the person who has the capacity to stage a coup d’etat is not yet born. I can say there will be no change within the next 20 to 30 years.
From our experience, we have learned that if we suppress liberal pluralism democracy, the people will resort to armed conflict. I have been studying why people go to the jungle and begin armed struggles, not just in Cambodia, but many other countries.
I found out that the only reason was that there were no rights nor liberty given to them to form political parties or have a civil society. Liberal multiparty democracy is what we choose to put a complete end to armed struggle.
Sometimes we face and accept criticism, insulting and cursing, in the newspapers. But that’s better than allowing people’s blood to be shed. We used to read reports about how many people died on the battlefield and how much property was destroyed. Now we don’t see those stories.
Democracy is good for Cambodia, but I’m not sure it would work in Vietnam, Laos and Burma.
Q. Why not?
It depends on the situation in other countries and the perception of the leaders in those countries.
But I can share my experiences. If we did not intend to support the Paris Peace Accords and 1993 elections, we could have refused to sign the accords or boycotted the elections. Nothing would have happened.
The 1998 election was just a year after chaos in Phnom Penh, yet we successfully organized elections even though there was also financial turmoil in Cambodia and in Southeast Asia.
Without political will, we would not be holding the first communal council elections on February 3rd. We could have used the pretext of the 2000-2001 floods and said we do not have the financial resources or sufficient time to prepare for elections. Or we could have cited a hundred other reasons. But we want the elections because we want to practice decentralization and democracy at the grassroots level.
I have been discussing with Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng about which month we will hold the 2003 general election. It could be in May, June or July. Normally there are many floods in July so we prefer May or June.
This is the right path for Cambodia, but I cannot poke my hand into the internal affairs of other countries.
Q: I know you cannot interfere. But what would you tell other leaders about liberal democratic government?
We cannot persuade leaders of other countries to accept our ideas. If they wish to consult with us, we can share our experiences. But we cannot make ourselves their teacher.
Q: Did you have these points of view 10 or 15 years ago, or did you change?
Three of the four people sitting here with me [advisors Kang Keng, Sum Mean and Bun Sambo] have been working with me for 23 years, so they know my ideas very well. We always did what was best for us, depending on the situation. But our final goal was a liberal, multiparty democracy.
I tried my best to seek talks with then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk, not just in 1987, but since 1983.
When we were the younger generation, our environment was like that of a frog who lives in a well but even if that frog cannot see the outside world, he can hear something from the outside.
B. Hun Sen Plans on Ruling Ten More Years
Q. A year ago an Asian magazine said you bad the toughest job in Asia. How long would you like to continue governing Cambodia? How are you preparing the new governing that might follow you?
Leading Cambodia is not an easy task. I cannot desert being prime minister, like in Peru where the President found it too difficult to lead and walked away from the job.
But we can’t allow our citizens to suffer by shirking our responsibilities. We used to eat bananas and maize along with the people while rebuilding the country. We sacrificed our lives for their safety and well-being. There is no need today to sacrifice our lives, but we can’t avoid our responsibilities.
I will be 50 years old [on Aug 5, 2002]. So if I continue working for another 10 years, I will be 60. That is not too old for me to govern. I would like to stay another two terms, but it is not decided by me; it’s whether or not people vote for me. That is democracy.
(Laughing) Another point. It is the [decision] of the devil whether he allows me to live another 10 years.
Q: If nothing happens to you … 10 years?
I plan to stay for another 10 years. You see, I always plan for the long term, not just for myself, but for the people of Cambodia.
I never forget about the human resource training. When we are no longer leaders, we want to enjoy a peaceful life under the younger generation of leaders.
Q: What criteria would you consider in selecting a king?
We should not talk about selecting the candidate for the throne. We should extend our best wishes to the current King for his longevity. We have a law for the Throne Council, which is the mechanism for choosing the next king.
Q: But what kind of person do you think should be a king?
The constitution in 1993 stated clearly that the successor needs to be related to the royal family of Ang Duong, Norodom or Sisowath. And the successor must be a male. At this point I think there are discussions on the selection but no amendments to the constitution.
Q: What about character, ability or previous experience? Do you have any personal feeling?
No one wants a bad king. Some NGOs have said the new king should be known in advance so people can prepare themselves. The people who say that should read the constitution.
Some people even say that group of people have been acting in collusion and selecting the king already, and that this grout is led by me. My response is that not one Hun Sen, not even ten Hun Sens, can select the king.
The law for operation of the Throne Council does not define whether the decision should be made by a simple majority, a two thirds majority, or whether it should be by consensus.
I never think about this. I have much work to do, so there’s no need for me to do the work which I do not need to do now.
Q: So no advance knowledge, same as the pope?
That’s right. That is what is defined in the constitution. The time frame is one week after the death of the Kung. In Japan, they know beforehand who will be the successor after the death of the present emperor.
Q: The next one may be difficult because it’s a girl baby. They may have to change their constitution.
That’s a Japanese problem. The Japanese are smart enough to solve this problem.
Q: Two of the most underdeveloped areas of Cambodia are Ratanakiri and Mondulkiri. Do you visualize a better future for them?
It is one of my major concerns. My dream is that by the year 2020, the northeastern region will be one of the country s economic pillars.
We are presently trying to develop a communications network in that area. We are always seeking financing to build roads in that area.
At a meeting this morning, I told agriculture officials to reserve some seats in the agricultural schools and at the Royal University of Agriculture for people from those areas to be educated. It is not easy to dispatch trained people from Phnom Penh to work in those areas, so the best way to promote development is to recruit people from those areas to be trained here, and then send them back to work in their native areas.
We are also planning a meeting between the Prime Ministers of Thailand, Cambodia and Laos to seek ways our three countries can develop the area where the three borders meet.
(Hun Sen brings out a map of Cambodia and neighboring countries.) Let’s say we have agricultural products in Ratanakiri and Mondulkiri, but we have to transport them to Sihanoukville port. The cost is very high. But if we cooperate with Vietnam, those products can be transported more economically through Vietnam to the sea.
It may be difficult to get electricity from central Cambodia, but more economical if we purchase it from Laos to supply Ratanakiri and Stung Treng.
We should establish greater cooperation between the Vietnamese provinces of Kantum and Yalay, the Laotian provinces of At Kapeu and Champa Sak, and Ratanakiri and Stung Treng provinces. There should also be cooperation between Ubon Ratanakiri province in Thailand, Champa Sak province in Laos and Preah Vihear.
We now have a hydropower plant in Ratanakiri. We have financing from China to help build a road from Kratie to Stung Treng to the Laos border. We are asking Japan to help build a bridge between Laos and Cambodia. During his recent visit, we asked the president of Vietnam to help us build a road from Strung Treng through Ratanakiri to the Vietnam border. It could be funded by a 100 percent grant or a 50 percent loan from Vietnam.
We haven’t forgotten about development in Koh Kong and Oddar Meanchey, and we never forget Preah Vihear.
Q: Thailand, Laos and Cambodia recently agreed to build a golf course together in a region still riddled with land mines. Do you plan to send a demining group there?
Before we start development, we have to clear the mines. I want to ask Prime Minister Thaksin to fund the operation, and have Cambodian teams demine our soil, Laos their soil and Thailand their soil. But I did not yet bring up this idea with Prime Minister Thaksin.
Q: When do you think this project will happen?
If it does happen, at the inauguration, I will invite many guests to observe the solidarity between the three countries. The three premiers of Laos, Thailand and Cambodia all play golf, so we can start it together.
We have to wait until the next summit of the three countries, which Thailand will host. However, we have a good working group set up now. Our cooperation will cover not just golf, but other fields including energy, transport, agriculture and the protection of the environment and wildlife.
Wildlife knows no borders. Let’s say we have an agreement so when elephants come into Cambodia the Cambodians will not shoot, and the same in Laos or Thailand. During the war, most of the wildlife fled Cambodia, but now they are returning to Cambodia.
There are no wars now in these three countries, but there remain hunters. So the three countries need to preserve wildlife, especially endangered species.
Q: Is the Northeast a good region to send demobilized troops if you give them land and schools for incentive?
When we have roads, schools and other facilities, it will not only be demobilized soldiers but other people, especially those who lack farming land in Central Cambodia, who will move to these areas. Why are there so few people living in Ratanakiri and Mondulkiri? Because we lack roads, schools and hospitals.
That’s why I call this government the road construction government.
C. Hun Sen Says Khmer Rouge Trial ‘A Must’
Q: Can you explain how a movement like the Khmer Rouge came into being? What caused you to join them and then to quit?
It’s shameful Cambodia had a regime like the Khmer Rouge that created such a culture of violence. The good culture, tradition and kindness of Cambodia was damaged by the hand of the Pol Pot group.
I never joined Khmer Rouge. If you consider King Sihanouk not a Khmer Rouge, then I never joined Khmer Rouge. The two reasons I went to the jungle were, first, to fight against the military coup that overthrew Prince Sihanouk; I joined because of his appeal. Second, with foreign aggression against our country, [how could] the youth like me stay calm?
But I was not Khmer Rouge. Rather, I was among those who eliminated the Khmer Rouge. Don’t you agree that at the time of the fight against the Khmer Rouge, the UN supported the Khmer Rouge?
Who are the Khmer Rouge? Who opposed the Khmer Rouge? We should make this clear.
Q: Cambodians are seen by most people of the world as gentle, benevolent people. Is there something in the Cambodian character that created a group like the Khmer Rouge and could it happen again?
It will not be repeated, because we have the constitution to prevent it. What happened is a topic we could discuss for about 500 hours. We could all write a thesis and discuss them, even if we can not find a consensus. I already have my own thesis, and one section is devoted to the nature of the Pol Pot regime.
Q: Should we forgive and forget?
This is not the time. We need to strengthen our people so this type of regime will not return. Thus a Khmer Rouge trial is a must. The evidence needs to be preserved as stipulated in my recent circular. We need to find out the reason, the root of why it came into being, because we don’t understand how the Khmer people could commit such crimes here on Cambodian soil in the 20th Century. If we compare crimes committed by Pol Pot and those crimes in Rwanda and by Osama bin Laden, those people still cannot match Pol Pot. In this world, we can’t find the right term to describe what Pol Pot did. It is unique in the history of the world.
Q: What have you enjoyed most about your job and what have you found hardest?
I enjoyed most the collapse of the Pol Pot regime and the return of full peace to Cambodia. The hardest was the time when we struggled to topple the Pol Pot regime.
There are still difficulties. One is reducing poverty. I spent half my life seeking peace for the people and I wonder whether I will spend the rest of my life trying to get people out of this poverty.
Some people nickname me “strongman.” I won’t acknowledge that I am a strong man until I can eliminate poverty. I am a strong man among weak men, not a strong man among strong men. When the per capita income rises to more than $1000, I can say I am a strong man among strong men.
Q: What is your overall view of NGO activities? Do you think they are contributing to the country’s rehabilitation or do you feel some projects and funds are not wisely used by NGOs?
Many NGOs are working right at the target areas of poverty, for which they deserve our encouragement and respect. They have been living and working in the rural areas.
But it seems some NGOs do not attach themselves to poverty reduction. I feel regret for the money given by some countries to such NGOs, which spend most of their time in the city and in hot 1S for seminars. You see them every day. They put on a necktie and stay in air-conditioned rooms and act like a fourth branch of government. They even want the power to know beforehand who will be the king.
Q: What projects do you suggest when NGOs come to you from overseas and ask “what would you like us to do?”
Water, schools, hospitals and roads. When I refer to water, I mean drinking water and water for irrigation.
Q: What would you tell government officials to help NGOs accomplish their work, and not make it more difficult?
I think the NGOs which have been working in rural areas do not face much difficulty. Maybe there are some points of information they do not understand. Some NGOs have been here almost 23 years.
Q: In a recent speech, you said you were under brief arrest after the UNTAC election. What was the reason?
I cannot tell all the details yet. I will elaborate on it in a book I am going to write. But the reason was the rejection, by some, of the results of the Untac-held elections. They knew I would recognize the election results. After escaping, I recognized the result, and we have been functioning ever since.
Q: Who arrested you? CPP or Funcinpec?
It was a person in the CPP, and this person also staged an abortive coup on July 2, 1994. General Sin Song who has died. Another one, who is now a Senate member, Sin Sen. At the time they arrested me, Sin Sen was not present.
I don’t want to talk any more about this. Now, I am like a cat people threw hot water on, so I don’t let myself be frightened by cold water. Three times already. I will not allow the fourth.
First, on June 2, 1993; second, July 2,1994; and then July 5, 1997, when it was announced I had died.
Actually, there was a fourth time already; the assassination plot in Siem Reap. So let there not be a fifth.
Q: Where were you kept, in house arrest or in the office?
In the house.
Q: What election result were they looking for?
They wanted to keep the former government of the State of Cambodia, but replace me. They did not want to form the new government
Q: Do you think King Sihanouk’s compromise, having the first prime minister and second prime minister basically share power, was a good solution at that time to maintain peace?
Avoiding bloodshed in Cambodia was the doing of King Sihanouk, not UNTAC. Without his wisdom, we would not have had the provisional government of co prime ministers, and without the provisional government we would not have the constitution, and bloodshed would have started again. Only King Sihanouk had the ability to resolve the problem.
Q: How would you assess King Sihanouk’s role in Cambodia’s history?
We must not forget his struggle to gain independence from France. He maintained peace in Cambodia for 16 years while the surrounding countries were at war. And there is his important role from the last phase of the Paris agreements until now.
Some foreigners do not give enough credit to our King. If I was giving grades after the election crisis of 1993, I would give zero to UNTAC but 100 to King Sihanouk. Some foreigners give UNTAC 90 points and the King only 10. That is totally wrong.
Q: Don’t you worry that the King will be difficult to replace; that no one is capable of taking his role in the future?
We won’t find a king who can play the same role as our current King. There is a Cambodian saying: “the second wave pushes the first wave.”
There will be a smarter person than Hun Sen in the younger generation, but you won’t find a person smarter and better than King Sihanouk.
D. Hun Sen Not Worried Over Angkor Buildup
Q: The world economy is in a dawn cycle and donor nations seem to be focusing on Afghanistan’s rehabilitation, Do you foresee reduced aid to Cambodia?
We are concerned foreign aid and loans will be reduced. In my meetings with Japanese leaders I always appeal to them not to reduce their assistance to Cambodia. The Japanese finance minister will visit Cambodia this month and I will make that appeal again. We say the same to the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and other countries. We ask them to consider us a poor country which still needs assistance.
However, we don’t depend totally on foreign aid. We try our best to increase domestic revenue. You can see our effort reflected in the Budget 2002 law which the National Assembly just approved. It would be better for our future if we are able to reduce our dependence on foreign aid and loans.
Q: What sort of justice do you think is proper for Osama bin Laden?
Osama bin Laden and his group deserve the same fate as Pol Pot and his leaders. If arrested, they should be tried in a court of law. What the US and its allies have been doing is correct: to respond to such bad deeds and prevent such terrible acts from occurring again.
The fate of bin Laden and Pol Pot should be tied together.
Q: Unfortunately Pol Pot was never tried.
Pol Pot was tried once in 1979. But the UN did not recognize that trial, and instead blamed us.
Q: If Osama bin Laden is tried, should it be by a court in Afghanistan, an international court or an American military tribunal?
Ask the White House.
Q: What is your opinion?
It would be better if the tribunal was set up on Afghan territory. But he should face charges for the crimes he committed on American soil. This is the difference between Pol Pot and bin Laden. Pol Pot just killed people in his own country, but bin Laden committed his crimes outside Afghanistan.
Q: Let me ask you to assess some people: Queen Monineath, Prince Ranariddh, Sam Rainsy, Hor Namhong. Could you say a few words about each of them?
Sorry, I cannot comment on the Queen, Prince Ranariddh, Sam Rainsy and Prince Sirivudh.
But I can comment on Mr. Hor Namhong, Mr. Keat Chhon and Mr. Chea Sophara because I selected them for their positions. If these three people did not have enough ability and capacity, I would not allow them to hold these important positions. It is like a football team. Where should we deploy Hor Namhong? Where should Keat Chhon and Chea Sophara play? They have enough capacity and play well, so they can keep their positions.
Q: If I ask Sam Rainsy what he thinks of Hun Sen, he will not say: “I don’t want to talk about this.” Why don’t you tell us what you think of him?
I don’t want to respond. They talk about me; it’s their right. I don’t talk about them; it’s my right. Maybe he has no other topic besides [talking about] me. And I have various topics to discuss with you.
Q: What ideas do you have for developing Cambodia’s economy? How do you encourage such development?
We’ve seen the development of the garment industry and we encourage further development. But one industry is not enough. We would bite to develop industries to process our domestic farming products or raw materials for export. So agro-industry is our investment-oriented goal.
However, we cannot bypass the tourism industry. It generates income as well as job opportunities for our people. If we can promote tourism, then tourism can promote agriculture and other industries. Tourism helps our farmers who grow vegetables and raise animals to provide to the hotels. So that’s why we would like the tourism industry to be the engine that pulls the train forward.
I have no ambition to develop heavy industry because it is impossible here.
Q: Do you think Angkor Wat tourism night be hurt by too much development, too many hotels, too much honky-tonk Ias Vegas-like atmosphere? Do you have any thoughts on preserving Angkor Wat?
The areas where we permit hotel construction are not adjacent to Angkor Wat. So I don’t think we should be too concerned about that.
I rejected signing one sub-decree related to tourism. That does not mean I am not paying attention to the Angkor temples. We have protection at Angkor already. But what I rejected signing was a sub-decree that did not focus on the Angkor area, but on the area within Siem Reap city.
For example, one of the points [in the sub-decree would have required that anyone who possesses a plot of land must dig up 10 percent of the land for a pond. So if someone has 3,000 square meters of land, they have to dig up 300 square meters.
The sub-decree also dealt with about 250 meters on either side of National Route 6. What do we do with the people living in this area? Another point in the sub-decree states people would be required to leave any land within 500 meters of the Siem Reap river. Many now live just 10C meters away. They also require people to build the roofs. How about people that are now casing thatched roof or corrugated iron roof
Such a sub-decree should be used for development of the moon, not development of the Siem Reap-Angkor area. I don’t know where these people come from who write such measures. Maybe they plan to develop the moon, which is uninhabited.
Uncontrolled development is better than uncontrolled destruction. During wartime from 1970 to 1975 (Lon Nol regime) and 1975 to 1979 (Khmer Rouge regime), there was no control over Angkor Wat. Now we are constructing hotels and they say it’s uncontrolled development. But that’s better than destroying hotels.
From 1979 until early 1991, our country suffered from political and economic sanctions and, in consequence, Angkor Wat was also ignored by the international community. Why didn’t anyone pay attention to it then?