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Diplomacy, ASEAN and the KR past

Foreign Minister Hor Namhong speaks his mind to the Post's Roger Mitton.


Minister of Foreign Affairs Hor Namhong in his office in Phnom Penh.

Balancing a career in diplomacy 

When it comes to diplomacy, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Hor Namhong has been Prime Minister Hun Sen's most trusted confidant for many years. He may be 74 now, and he may yearn to take a break, but Hun Sen wants him to stay put. It's hard not to understand why, given the way Hor Namhong has guided Cambodia through the minefields of foreign relations and border disputes. But do not expect to catch Hor Namhong embracing the wine-sipping social whirl aspect of diplomacy. This career veteran is something of a loner and enjoys nothing more than a solitary round of golf, breathing fresh air as his mind sails free from affairs of state.

After 10 years in ASEAN, what has Cambodia got out of it?

For geopolitical and economic reasons, we could not afford to stay out. We are not a big country, but when we joined ASEAN, we became a member of an important association that is recognised by the international community. As a result, we have been approached by many countries about international issues, and it has enhanced our ties with big powers like the United States, Russia, China, Japan, Korea and the European Union.

Is Cambodia a democracy?

It is, but remember, democracy is an issue of mindset. And changing the mindset of people can be difficult. So ... we need to go step by step. It takes time to establish a fully democratic system. But our leaders have the political will and the desire to move ahead and democratise the country.

Could Cambodia's democratisation be an example to Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam?

We are democratic, but I don't like to presume to be an example. Of course, for the credibility of ASEAN, we do wish that all our fellow members would follow the path of democracy. ... With Myanmar there are some problems with our dialogue partners from Europe and other countries. But Myanmar has set a road map to democracy, and we hope they will continue to follow that road and hold an election next year - and that it will be more credible.

Are you friends with your Myanmar counterparts?

[Laughs, pauses.] Colleagues. We are fellow ASEAN members. For myself, I think democratisation is in the interest of Myanmar itself - and in the interest of the Myanmar people and of ASEAN as a whole. As for Aung San Suu Kyi, she has been put on trial, as you know. We still hope that no more action will be taken against her. My feeling is that she may have been unaware of the arrival of the American at her house.

Relations with your ASEAN neighbours have been tense.

We've had border problems with Laos, Vietnam and Thailand.... With Thailand, we have problems, which, on the one hand, are easier than those of Laos or Vietnam, but on the other hand, more difficult. They are easier because we signed a 1904 convention and a 1907 treaty with Siam, as Thailand was then called, agreeing to set up a commission to map the border. Thailand has always recognised this agreement, so we must use it to demarcate the border. But the process is more complicated because of the political situation in Thailand. Under their new Constitution, any agreement with a foreign country involving the border must be approved by parliament. And their parliament has not approved what we have agreed. So we are hostage to the internal situation there.

How do you feel about the Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya scorning Cambodia and Prime Minister Hun Sen?

That was in the past. He said it when he appeared at a yellow-shirt rally in Bangkok last year. But when he joined the government this year, he used other language towards Cambodia. So we understand. We have to look to the future. Dwelling on the past is outdated.... No matter what you may read in the press, we sincerely want peaceful relations with all our neighbours.

You don't like the media?

[Laughs] I like the media, but I would like journalists to write correctly and objectively. The recent Economist Intelligence Unit survey, for instance, was absurd. Comparing Cambodia to Afghanistan, it's ridiculous. But those things reinforce wrong impressions. And we blame some of the media, who always say everything is bad in Cambodia. They only remember the Khmer Rouge days, but they don't realise that today we are moving ahead and building a strong nation. We are a member of ASEAN and other international organisations. I meet many foreigners who congratulate Cambodia for making so much progress. When they come here, they see it is not bad at all.... I'm not saying everything is perfect in Cambodia, not at all. But we need objectivity.

Were you a member of the Khmer Rouge?

Ah! [laughs]. You know, I won a court case in Paris in 1991 when I was accused of being a Khmer Rouge. Recently, also in France, I won another trial against Sam Rainsy, who said the same thing. Let me tell you the story. After the coup d'etat in March 1970 led by General Lon Nol, a body called the United Front of Cambodia was set up against the military regime. I was a diplomat in Paris at the time and I joined the United Front.... When the Khmer Rouge took over in April 1975, they sent a telegram saying that all members of the United Front must to come back to Cambodia for a re-education of 10 days. I flew back from Cuba, where I was then the ambassador. As soon as I put my foot on land at Pochentong Airport, I realised that life as I knew it was over. I was a prisoner of the Khmer Rouge.

What did they do with you?

They put me in a re-education camp at Boeung Trabek, not far from here.... B-32, where I was,  [was] for former diplomats and high-ranking civil servants. We were considered the most reactionary and dangerous. There was a chief Khmer Rouge and three young cadres controlling us. They made a report on us every day, and they set up a prisoner committee to organise us to collect vegetables and so on. They gave us some rice and we had to organise to survive. The first two heads of this committee [Chau Seng and Van Pinay] were killed by the Khmer Rouge. I was the third.

Why did they make you head of this committee?

They chose people who worked the most. I worked hard because, like other diplomat prisoners, I hoped to be selected to work in the foreign ministry. Earlier, we had heard that the Khmer Rouge had taken some people from other camps to work in the ministry, and we hoped we might be chosen to do that if we worked hard. But later, we learned that these people had been taken away to the killing fields.

Were any of your family also detained by the Khmer Rouge?

I lost five brothers and sisters, including their spouses and children. I lost more than 20, perhaps 20 relatives. My two sisters [Hor Kim Aun and Hor Kim San], who came back from France in 1976, were put in the next camp to me, separated only by a wall. But I was never told they were there, so close, with their husbands and children. They were all murdered by the Khmer Rouge. I only learned about this later when I met friends from the next camp who told me, ‘Your sisters and their families were with us; they were all killed'.

Yet you survived?

I would not have survived if there had been no January 7, 1979, [when Vietnamese forces occupied Phnom Penh]. I would also have been killed by the Khmer Rouge. I know that because they told me they had already prepared a dossier about me in Tuol Sleng. Later, my wife and I always wondered: What dossier? I mean, we worked hard every day in the camp. What could they have on me? I only learned the answer after 1979, when my two boys went to work at Tuol Sleng [where they had to] classify papers ... and they discovered there was a dossier about me saying that I was a CIA agent. And if it had not been for 1979, my family and I would all have been killed by the Khmer Rouge. I am very happy now that we are holding this tribunal [ECCC] to bring these people to justice. It is for the history of Cambodia.

So your life was saved by the Vietnamese?

Not only myself. The whole nation was saved. During the three years, eight months and 20 days the Khmer Rouge were in power, they killed more than a million people. But what country in the world raised a finger to combat them? You know, I never understand why some people question Vietnam's action. The question they should ask is: Without Vietnam's intervention and help, what would have happened to us? What other country, which other leaders came to save us from the terror of the Khmer Rouge? No one. No one. Silence. Complete silence from the rest of the world.

Why are your three sons all working for your ministry?

Let me tell you why. In 1979, when we wanted to redevelop the country, there was nothing. No administration, no ministries, no water, no electricity, no markets, no money, no education, nothing. Under those circumstances, when I came back here, I needed any Cambodians who had some notion of other countries and who knew foreign languages. That is the reality of what it was like then. My sons had studied in France before the Khmer Rouge took over, so they had to come and work here. It is not nepotism.

Were you made foreign minister because of your friendship with Hun Sen?

I have been a career diplomat all my life. I have worked with Hun Sen for almost 30 years. I can tell you he is a very intelligent, open-minded man who listens to the views of all the people. And he does not get upset if you disagree with him. Many times he says this and I say that. It is normal. He is a man who wants to work for the country and always thinks about the fate of the people.

You have a reputation for being prickly and unsociable. You play golf by yourself.

[Laughs] Let me tell you why I do that. When you play golf with others, it becomes a competition. People even wager money on who will win. So you are not relaxed. When I play, I play alone. I walk at my own pace. I breathe the air. And I am not forced to play well, but just as I can. I have no fear of losing. So I am completely relaxed.

You are 74; when are you going to retire?

I've already said it is time for me to go. But Prime Minister Hun Sen said the people have voted for me and that he needs me for the time being. So I have to stay until I am allowed to retire. 



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