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A Talk with Prime Minister Hun Sen

I had the privilege to interview Hun Sen, the prime minister of Cambodia, in January 1990. During our discussion, Hun Sen touched upon his reasons for joining the national liberation struggle back in 1970, his early opposition to Pol Rot, the dynamics of change since 1979, his government's relationship with Vietnam, and the recent Australian peace initiatives.

This interview was the highlight of my second trip home in six months. From 1975 until June 1989 I had been unable to return to Cambodia. Like many Cambodians, I had been separated from my family, of these people had made the decision to remain in Cambodia and contribute to its revival after the destructive Pol Pot years.

The National Liberation Struggle

Hun Sen was not interested in talking about his childhood, preferring instead to focus on how and why he joined the struggle against the Lon Nol regime: "At the age of 18, when most young men can study, finding a job, or getting married, I found myself in controversial political circumstances. ...The Americans had been dropping bombs on Memot, my birthplace. Being a Khmer and the offspring of the Angkorean age, I had no choice but to join the popular movement to fight against external aggression."

Hun Sen described how Memot, in Kompong Cham, had been secretly bombed by the United States for more than a year before Lon Nol seized power in March 1970. Before Hun Sen turned 18 he had received education up to matriculation level in Phnom Penh and had returned to work in Memot afterward.

At the time that Hun Sen decided to join the armed struggle, he claims he did not really understand its political dimensions. What he did know was that the Lon Nol regime could not last year long. Toward Prince Norodom Sihanouk, he was quite ambivalent at the time. Hun Sen also perceived that he would be killed if he returned home to Memot because of his involvement in the armed struggle. Yet Hun Sen conveyed his serious reservations about the direction the armed struggle was taking by 1974.

"It was clear that top and even middle-ranking cadres were being taken away to be executed. It even crossed my mind that had I sided with Lon Nol from the beginning rather than participating in the armed struggle, I could have sought refuge in France." One of his uncles currently living in France spent 4 million riels (about US $15,000) to obtain an exit visa.

However, as the struggle unfolded and intensified, Hun Sen realized there would be no way for him to leave the liberated zones of Cambodia. The struggle also grew more radical. "People were being conscripted and together with their families were being forcibly relocated deeper into the liberated zones from which there could be no escape." He assumed that once the country was liberated this radical program would be reversed.

Yet Hun Sen was also aware that a form of rebellion within the movement was underway: "My problem was that as an insignificant person I could not do much about what was going on. During this time many of my friends were arrested and tortured. Even I was accused of being a lieutenant-general in Lon Nol's army by one of my friends." (This friend now works in the Foreign Ministry, but Hun Sen refused to identify him.)

The events of 1974 were rapidly eclipsed by the collapse of Lon Nol's regime in April 1975. In the days before Phnom Penh's liberation on 17 April, Hun Sen was badly wounded: "On the 16th I lost my left eye and was partially paralyzed as a result of a bullet entering the right side of my forehead and exiting through my left eye. I spent eight days in a coma and when I came out of the coma I saw all these people being evacuated."

Hun Sen went on at some length to explain why these sudden evacuations worried him, but he was assuaged by a common reply: "Angka [Communist Party of Kampuchea] has ordered us to leave our houses because the B-52s are going to bomb us. But do not worry, we will be allowed by Angka to return when the danger is over." Hun Sen knew from past experience that whenever Lon Nol's ground forces were defeated, bombers came in to destroy the newly liberated area. At t the time he was still very ill and did not realize the Khmer Rouge had more radical plans for the people.

He was "enlightened" at a meeting of his revolutionary army unit several days later: "The leaders talked about the socialist revolution, the democratic revolution, a revolution that not only had succeeded in eliminating the American imperialists and their supporters but that had also uprooted the old remnants of feudalism and merchant capitalism." Hun Sen claims that at this meeting he was forced to listen to the rationale for depopulating urban settlements and abolishing private property, currency, and all social classes. The talk at this meeting was of "pure equality where neither rich nor poor would exist in Cambodia."

Early Opposition to Pol Pot

Soon afterward he received permission to leave the hospital to visit his family, but on returning home he found they were about to be relocated some 40 km distance from their home. His father had already been separated from the family, arrested and tortured on the grounds that he had been a member of Sihanouk's Sangkum Reastr Niyum. "I thought by now my father should be free, but they continued their cruel actions against him... even after they were victorious. From that time I increased my anger and revenge to challenge the practices of those Khmer Rouge." So Hun Sen dates his real opposition to Pol Pot from the early days following the demise of the Lon Nol regime.

Hun Sen claims he spent much of 1975 in the hospital; given the nature of his battle wounds, this is hardly surprising. During this time he started to organize a movement to oppose the Khmer Rouge. Although many of his friends were arrested and then killed by the khmer Rouge, they refused to implicate Hun Sen in the opposition movement. Thus, he had some room to maneuver. Nevertheless, it was difficult to rebel against the Khmer Rough: "Under them it was a form of closed war, unlike the Lon Nol time where the war was open. Under Lon Nol people had room to maneuver, there was privacy, and there was a currency circulating to get things done. But under Pol Pot the policy of working and eating communally worked against people being able to rebel."

In 1976 Hun Sen received permission to marry four years earlier than the normal time allocated by the Khmer Rouge based on the fact that he had been wounded. His first child died soon after birth. There was a time void in our discussion: Hun Sen talked little about 1976, preferring to concentrate on what was happening by mid-1977. At the time, he crossed into Vietnam with some of his troops and asked Vietnam for support against Pol Pot.

"However, at the time Vietnam was unwilling to cooperate, kept me as a political refugee, and then suggested that I seek Thailand's backing instead. You see, at the time Vietnam still got on with Pol Pot. ...What changed matters was Pol Pot's ignorantly ambitious move to encroach upon first the territory of Thailand and then the territory of Vietnam. By this time Vietnam decided to support us against Pol Pot."

Hun Sen made the following point very strongly: "Remember, if we Khmer people who could no longer bear the brutal practices of the Khmer Rouge did not develop enough strength and insight to organize ourselves to challenge them, victory alone would not have occurred simply on account of the Vietnamese troops." He insists that external military intervention per se did not result in the overthrow of Pol Pot. Domestic opposition to the Khmer Rouge, he argues, was the catalyst that led to Vietnam's intervention being the catalyst to domestic opposition.

On a personal level, Hun Sen claimed that he was not an initial beneficiary of Khmer Rouge support, basing his argument on what happened to his wife after the birth of their second child. Despite the dispensation to marry early, his wife was arrested and tortured only 12 days after she gave birth in 1977. The Khmer Rouge attempted to break her resolve, but she stood firm like the others who survived the Khmer Rouge period. The focus of this opposition to the Khmer Rouge was based in the Eastern Zone, and when Vietnamese troops crossed into Cambodia late in 1978 "the Eastern zone was instrumental in breaking up most of Pol Pot's regular army. Only Ta Mok's troops were able to retain their strength whereas troops under Pol Pot's regular army. Only Ta Mok's troops were able to retain their strength whereas troops under Pol Pot's control did not retain their cohesiveness. ...They quintessential point Hun Sen seeks to make is that people in Cambodia were not simply passive opponents of the Khmer Rouge.

The Dynamics of Change Since 1979

Hun Sen expressed at some length his irritation with those forces opposed to his government that persist in charging the regime with corruption and ineptitude. Rising to the occasion, he argues: "Our enemies at this last and most desperate stage of their attack have demonstrated to us by suing guns they cannot uproot us, so they resort to psychological warfare."

He went on to say that observers have incorrectly assumed there are parallels in the context of corruption between his government and the governments of Sihanouk and Lon Nol. If corruption contributed to their downfall, it does not follow that the present government will fall on this account. "It's easy to check on whether my ministers and I are corrupt. Check the banks around the world. Compare Lon Nol's or Sihanouk's ministers. They had foreign bank accounts, houses in France, houses in the United States. If my ministers have one or two houses inside Cambodia, why should that matter? It is our intention to keep all wealth in the country."

He claims these critics have not been able to produce one iota of evidence to prove corruption. This does not mean that he denies the existence of forms of petty corruption in Cambodia or claims that every government official is spotless. After all, "the government cannot afford to pay officials a salary to make ends meet." But Hun Sen also noted that people have the right to complain and that the government must be sensitive to these complaints. There is far more corruption in the border camps by critics of the government, he argued, than in Phnom Penh.

According to Hun Sen, to understand this argument the issue must be put in historical context. After the overthrow of Pol Pot in 1979, people were free to exchange whatever goods and services they had for other goods and services. "At the time gold was the important medium of exchange but most of this gold had been generated from activities prior to Pol Pot's time. People who were able to hide gold during this time could use it to trade with Thailand and, to a lesser extent, Vietnam." Without these hidden reserves of gold, the post-1979 rehabilitation of Cambodian society would have been even more difficult. The priority in 1979 was for people to meet their own basic needs by whatever means they could.

In March 1980 a formal monetary system based on paper currency was reinstated. From the outset, Hun Sen said, only a minority of government officials had access to this paper money. The vast majority of people still relied on barter, and gold retained its centrality as the most important means of payment. Simultaneously, the state sought to institutionalize economic development along socialist lines. Hun Sen compared the period 1979-1985 to the period where "the crocodile was waiting to receive the government, and to stay out of the crocodile's jaws the people worked day and night to strengthen the society and to meet their basic needs." However, the government was criticized as being a communist government because of its rigidities and shortcomings. Hun Sen claims most of this criticism came from people outside Cambodia, but he is prepared to admit that there was also domestic criticism.

For instance, in 1983, when he was still minister of foreign affairs, Hun Sen and 20 other cadres went to assist with transplanting rice at a village called Obekarom on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. The villagers, unaware of who he was, answered him rather mechanically when he asked them about how their solidarity group worked. But "one outspoken woman yelled out that it depends on how we are told to work, where we are told to work, and when we are to work. I thought about her reply and decided it was obvious that the people were not yet the masters or owners of their land. From then on I resolved to do my own research into how solidarity groups could be reorganized to rectify this unsatisfactory state of affairs."

Today, Hun Sen said, all cadres and officials must spend some time in the countryside every month. Those with less hectic schedules are required to visit the countryside at least weekly. Hun Sen stressed that critics of the government have overlooked how ethnic Khmers and women are now better able to participate in the nonagricultural sector of the economy. In the past, "it was the Chinese who dominated the economy. As you can see the Chinese are still economically active but now the Khmers, especially the women, are also involved in the marketplace. That is a good thing and improves peoples' livelihoods. Moreover, even government officials can supplement their meager state incomes by being involved in private economic activity. We are asking people to be more self-reliant." Hun Sen juxtaposed the economic activities of people living in the country with those people living in the border camps, arguing that this represents the government's pragmatic and flexible response.

To illustrate this "pragmatic and flexible" approach since 1979, Hun Sen pointed out that, objectively, the political conditions in Cambodia have always been different than those in neighboring Vietnam. "Look at how the Khmers want the free market. The agricultural cooperative did not work interested in state control of the economy. This is where the Khmers differ from the Vietnamese. The Vietnamese, especially from the north, are used to the state controlling the economy." The problems associated with centralized state management meant that people became too dependent on the state, he said, citing the example of people shifting from province to province, caring little about the land they worked or the houses in which they lived-practices that would keep Cambodia economically backward. As a result, the state passed legislation in 1985 permitting people to own the land or occupy the houses in which they had been living when this legislation was passed.

Socializing the means of production in Cambodia, Hun Sen said, took away peoples' incentive to produce. This, he argued, was an objective law, one that could be readily observed empirically. After 1985, then, "the crocodile is no longer a threat because we are now on the land, and we prefer to be on the land where we can meet the tiger. Meeting the tiger is not as bad as the crocodile because there are trees on the land which can be climbed to escape the tiger."

These changes, Hun Sen argued, give the enemy little ammunition with which to attack the government. Hence critics of his government have to resort to the claims that it depends upon the support of Vietnam to survive and that the process of the "Vietnamization" of Cambodia continues unabated.

Not Vietnam's Puppet

Hum Sen has gone to some lengths to challenge his cirtics' claims that he is beholden to Vietnam. At the Jakarta Informal Meeting (JIM) held in 1987, he said to Sihanouk, "`Hey, dear prince, what do you call the movement against external aggression between 1970-1975?' Sihanouk answered, 'The national liberation movement.' To which I replied, `Okay, then you were the father of the Cambodian nationalist movement and I was its son.' But if Sihanouk accuses me of being the Khmer Rouge, then it means he has to be the father of the Khmer Rouge."

Hun Sen insists that expatriate Cambodians look more carefully at Sihanouk's activities. "From 1975 to 1978 did Sihanouk rebel against the Khmer Rouge? No, he did not. It was Heng Samrin, Chea Sim, and I who waged the struggle against the Khmer Rouge. As for Sihanouk, he has been with the Khmer Rouge the whole way and I want to stress this point to all Khmers living overseas."

Hun Sen constantly stressed his nationalist credentials, as well as his commitment to fighting against the forms of enslavement Pol Pot had imposed upon Cambodian society.

Referring to the process of "Vietnamization," Hun Sen dismissed his critics out of hand. He asked me, "How can we be accused of Vietnamization? Look for yourself as you have come home to see the reality. How many members of your family are married to Vietnamese? How many members of your family speak Vietnamese? What about your relatives, friends, and old work colleagues? You can see for yourself that English, Thai, French, Japanese, even Spanish are popular at our private schools, Ask everyone around you. Are they forced to learn Vietnamese? The answer must be no!

"I wish to make an observation about the nature of Khmer society. Khmer women can marry just about anyone except Vietnamese and Chams. Women can wear any style of clothing except that which is distinctly Vietnamese. How many Khmer women do you see wearing the Vietnamese dress (ary yay) or Vietnamese hat (duon)? Look at Sihanouk. He praises his foreign wife and no one complains. But should individual Khmers decide to marry individual Vietnamese, that is their private affair, their right, and this would not prove we are being Vietnamized."

With an eye to Cambodians living abroad, Hun Sen argued that his government is only too happy for assistance from this dispersed and diverse group. "If the overseas Khmers are so concerned with Khmer culture and our education, they should contribute to safeguarding our traditions. I welcome any assistance which can be offered. For instance, how about sending some medicine to keep the Khmer people alive and well so that they can defend the national interests of Cambodia? Please, I ask the overseas Khmers to come and help." Cambodians living abroad, he claims, are welcome to return home - to visit or to stay. It is his intention to highlight the flexibility of the current government in Phnom Penh.

However, despite Hun Sen's determined attempts to establish his nationalist credentials, he also argued that the presence of Vietnamese troops in Cambodia did not mean that Cambodia had been integrated into Vietnam. He drew parallels with the Lon Nol regime: "People who are currently criticizing us never accused Lon Nol of lacking independence. The Khmer Republic was recognized as an independent country. But how could Lon Nol be independent? Look at the military aid he got form the Americans."

In a pointed barb at the Khmer Rouge, Hun Sen claimed its fanatical obsession with "mastery" of Cambodia was completely negative. "Is it not better to be a `puppet' and continue to make progress, than to be the `master' of the country like Pol Pot and contribute to the genocidal destruction of the country?" To round off the criticism of those who would argue that he is a puppet of Vietnam, he asked, "What more do these people want from the government? Look at our record over the past 10 years. Look at the composition of our government. We have members from all factions. All these people stand on the principles of working in the national and people's interest and opposition to Pol Pot."

In concluding the discussion on this point, Hun Sen observed that the people living in Cambodia know the reality of their country's relationship with Vietnam better than external critics do.

The Future Prospects for Peace

Interested in gauging Hun Sen's reaction to the Australian government's peace initiatives, I asked him what he thought about Australia's real motives. He replied: "I consider Australia to be an independent country not under the domination of any one country. The Hawke Labor Government does not support Pol Pot. ...Geographically because of Australia's distance from Cambodia its political initiatives do not really benefit Australia. That is why the Australian proposal will be given serious consideration."

Hun Sen claimed that he has had wide-ranging discussions with Michael Costello, the Australian government's special envoy, including talks about the possible outcome of supervised elections. "In my talks with Costello we both agreed that the two opposing governments should stay as before and the United Nations should supervise elections. However, these supervised elections do not simply rest on what the government wants. It will be the people of Cambodia who decide the composition of any future democratically elected government. So if they choose Pol Pot, well, there is nothing I can do about it."

Nevertheless, Hun Sen also claimed it will be highly unlikely that Pol Pot will win any election. "We know the people don't want Pol Pot because they want schools to be open, markets to function, to lead normal family lives, and most importantly they don't want to be victims of genocide." His confidence here obviously rests on people's collective memories of life in Democratic Kampuchea between 1975 and 1979.

Yet Hun Sen also stressed that his government is negotiating from a position of strength. Its desire for peace is based on the premise that Cambodia cannot develop and prosper if the destructive war continues. Nevertheless, should the situation deteriorate, the government would be willing to fight: "You should not assume that we are unwilling to fight. At any time we can strike at the other forces and what little territory is under their control can be retaken. However, even though we have the capacity to increase the level of fighting at any given time we know the real losers in the fighting are the people."

Hun Sen went on to deny that the initiative in the military struggle lay with opponents to the government, but asserted that his government is more genuinely committed to the peace process than its opponents. He stressed that the existing leadership of the Khmer Rouge has no role to play in Cambodia because of its past genocidal practices. On this last point there is no room for concessions to be made.


I have made a concerted attempt to represent accurately Hun Sen's points on major issues. I have made little attempt to analyze the substance of his arguments, my intent being to offer insights into Hun Sen's public thoughts on a range of issues. Quite obviously his past involvement in the struggle to topple Pol Pot, his relationship with other members of the People's Revolutionary Party, and Cambodia's relationship with Vietnam need to be analyzed in depth. Whatever the reader may think to Hun Sen's arguments, few would deny that his government has acquired a status and longevity unknown in Cambodia's recent and tragic past. What now remains is for the international community to engage constructively in the peaceful development of Cambodia. Right now this looks like a real possibility.


1 The Sangkum Reastr Niyum, or Popular Socialist Community, was the political organization Sihanouk used to rule the country from 1955 to 1970.

2 For accounts of what happened in the Eastern Zone - the administrative zone of Democratic Kampuchea that bordered vietnam - the best analyses are found in Vickery (1984) and Kiernan (1985).

3 The Khmers have "traditionally" equated the Vietnamese with the crocodile and the Thais with the tiger, but in this interview Hun Sen was making metaphorical reference to the inability to escape from the crocodile in the water and being able to escape from the tiger. In the period 1979-1985 it was somewhat problematic as to whether Cambodia and its people could recover from the Pol Pot period.

4 The Chams are the Khmer-Muslims who were the special object of Pol Pot's assimilationist policies (see pp. 64-66). Reports of Vietnamization in Cambodia were given some credibility by the work of French anthropologist Marie-Alexandrine Martin (1986). However, if some restrictive practices such as secretive teaching of French and English existed in the early 1980s, this is no longer the case. Being a trained social anthropologist myself, and being some-what more familiar with Khmer culture than Martin, I was surprised by attempts to revive traditional Khmer culture in Cambodia.

5 The essence of the Australian peace initiative, first suggested by US Congressman Stephen Solarz, is:

(1) a ceasefire;

(2) the installation of an international control mechanism under the auspices of the UN to supervise the transition process;

(3) effective international verification of the total withdrawal of all foreign forces;

(4) tight guarantees against a return to the universally condemned policies and practices of the Khmer Rouge period;

(5) cessation of all foreign military supplies to all Cambodian factions;

(6) promotion of national reconciliation recognizing the central role of Sihanouk;

(7) an interim administering authority that will handle arrangements following a ceasefire prior to the installation of an elected government;

(8) holding of free and democratic elections leading to the convening of a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution and the formation of a new government;

(9) international guarantees of Cambodia's sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity, neutrality, and nonaligned status;

(10) Creation of conditions conducive to the safe return of refugees and for Cambodia's reconstruction.


Kiernan, B.

1985 How Pol Pot Came to Power. London: Verso.

Martin, M.A.

1986 Vietnamized Cambodia: A Silent Genocide. Indochina Report 7 (July-September).

Vickery, M.

1984 Cambodia: 1975-1982. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.

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