Harish and Julie Mehta’s study of Hun Sen has been the definitive profile of Cambodia’s most powerful man since its publication in 1999.
It’s a shame that this is the case.
Without any revisions in the time since and with no other biographers forthcoming, we have yet to hear the Prime Minister reflect at length on the defining political events of the last 13 years – runaway economic growth, the decline of Funcinpec as a political force, the exile of Sam Rainsy and the violence that occasioned the 2003 national elections.
The book itself is a case study in that perennial conundrum of the journalist: the trade-off between access and full disclosure. Based on exhaustive interviews with Hun Sen, Bun Rany and members of the PM’s inner circle, the authors follow their subject through childhood in Kampong Cham, living as a pagoda boy while studying in Phnom Penh and his decision to join the guerrillas after the Lon Nol coup (ironically, a decision which was made on account of his support for the deposed Sihanouk).
The Mehtas paint a telling portrait of the party’s desperate attempts to govern in the 1980s, when the Vietnamese presence brought resentment at home and diplomatic isolation abroad. The book is worthy in its own right as a historical study of this period, coupled with some interesting disclosures from Hun Sen himself – for instance, his need to have members of Paris’s Cambodian population cook for him during the Peace Accords because of his inability to stomach foreign food.
During more contentious events, the book has the unfortunate tendency to collapse into hagiography. The 1997 coup, easily the most contested incident in Cambodian history of the last 15 years, is presented almost entirely from Hun Sen’s perspective. In 2001, Harish Mehta published a similar profile of Ranariddh titled Warrior Prince, and anyone seeking a semblance of balance in the tale of the long rivalry between the royalists and the ex-communists should endeavour to read both books in tandem.
A new edition of Strongman of Cambodia is due to be released later this year, based on several new interviews with Hun Sen. There has been no shortage of things to discuss, and hopefully the long acquaintance between the profilers and the profiled has rendered the Mehtas bold enough to challenge their subject more vigorously.
Hun Sen: Strongman of Cambodia is available in poorly photocopied pirate form from just about any tout slinging books on the Riverside. $2 ono, give or take some bad karma.
To contact the reporter on this story: Sean Gleeson at firstname.lastname@example.org