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In review: the ‘mirage’ of Cambodia

Sebastian Strangio with his new book, Hun Sen’s Cambodia
Sebastian Strangio with his new book, Hun Sen’s Cambodia. Scott Howes

In review: the ‘mirage’ of Cambodia

On January 11, 1979, four days after Vietnamese troops and Cambodian rebels swept into Phnom Penh and toppled the Khmer Rouge regime, the leadership of the freshly proclaimed People’s Republic of Kampuchea touched down at Pochentong airport.

An arduous task of state-building lay ahead of the four men that emerged onto the dusty and cratered tarmac that day. Pen Sovann, Heng Samrin, Chea Sim and a slight, 26-year-old Hun Sen would take the reigns – in tandem with their Vietnamese supervisors – of an almost post-apocalyptic nation.

One of them would emerge as the undisputed leader of modern Cambodia. Through sheer grit, an ability to bend with the wind, the capacity for violence and a carefully managed narrative of salvation, Hun Sen would rise to the top.

But the story of how the “strongman” consolidated his power, which is also the story of contemporary Cambodia, is rarely told with a dispassionate long-term view. When it comes to non-fiction about the Kingdom, the shelves are stacked with books about the Khmer Rouge period. A few look at the 1980s in-depth, while even fewer take comprehensive stock of post-UNTAC developments, and modern-day Cambodia, in much detail.

Journalist Sebastian Strangio’s new book, Hun Sen’s Cambodia, the product of two years of writing and research, and many more years spent reporting in Cambodia, fills a welcome gap.

But it is the incisive and rigorous analysis underpinning its highly readable narrative that makes the book – a combination of journalistic reportage and academic argument – worthwhile.

Strangio, a former reporter and editor at the Post, spends the first half of the book charting the ebbs and flows of power and politics in modern Cambodia. Starting with the Khmer Rouge years, Strangio moves through the Cold War realpolitik of the 1980s, onto the supposed UN-sponsored democratic dawn of the 1990s, and finishes with the brute consolidation of Hun Sen and the CPP’s power that followed.

The second half of the book dissects and vividly illustrates the system that has underpinned and perpetuated the CPP’s hold on power, which is only now threatening to unravel: a network of patronage strings and their entwined “primitive currency” of corruption, land grabs and resource exploitation. It all converges at the throne of “the peasant king”, Hun Sen.

The central thesis of Hun Sen’s Cambodia is that, in trying to force-feed Cambodia liberal democracy, the post-Cold War international order created a “mirage on the Mekong”. A play on US Congressman Stephen Solarz’s declaration that the post-coup 1998 elections were a “miracle on the Mekong”, the phrase is deployed heavily throughout the book.

Hun Sen is described as having developed over the years into a “skilled illusionist, conjuring up mirages of democracy behind which he ruled in the traditional way, through an iron fist and a canny manipulation of his country’s history and culture.”

Strangio pinpoints the importance of the isolated 1980s – the formative years of Hun Sen’s political career and when the seeds of CPP dominance were laid.

When the world re-engaged with Cambodia in 1992, as Hun Sen’s Cambodia shows, the country was hardly “a blank slate” onto which democracy could be planted.

“The CPP had spent the previous decade rebuilding a shattered nation and sinking its political roots, and it resented the arrival of the UN with its long tail of foreign consultants and Panglossian ‘action plans’,” Strangio writes.

Hun Sen’s Cambodia is all smoke and mirrors, Strangio argues, and despite the profileration of NGOs and the government’s adoption of development-speak, the country has never truly accepted reforms that will touch the patronage and power networks that sustain it.

In a memorable passage, Strangio describes how the government agreed in 2012 to allow a small statue of slain union leader Chea Vichea to be erected near Wat Lanka in exchange for a halt to yearly marches that called for his killers to be brought to justice.

“Instead of responding to rising popular discontent with concrete reforms, the government offered another empty concession. Instead of human rights, Cambodia had ‘International Human Rights Day’. Instead of freedom of expression there was ‘Freedom Park.’”

Strangio’s application of this mirage theory to almost every sector, might lead some readers to accuse him of being overly cynical.

Even the country’s startling economic growth over the last decade, centred on boom-town Phnom Penh, is described as “mirage money”, credited to a murky shadow state rife with corruption and patronage, which remains off the books.

Whether this invisible and unregulated economy really outweighs the clout of foreign investors and a growing middle class who earn their money via legitimate means is up for debate.

Last year’s elections, dealt with only briefly in the book, which brought unprecedented gains for the opposition, show that the rules have changed. There is widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo.

Strangio’s timely illumination of Hun Sen’s chess moves over the last few decades provides a framework to understand what could happen next.

As to whether the strings of patronage will leave Hun Sen straitjacketed, Strangio does not offer a definitive answer.

But he makes it clear that if political changes will come to Cambodia, it will not come “from a shape-shifting ‘international community’ – but from below, from the Cambodian people themselves”.

Hun Sen’s Cambodia, published by Silkworm Books, will be available at all Monument Books stores in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap from October 27. To reserve a copy, contact [email protected].

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