Foreign Minister Ung Huot talks to Ker Munthit about his past and future
CAMBODIAN politics has taken its toll on Ung Huot. At 50 years of
age, the former Minister of Education and now Foreign Minister admits growing a
little grayer since his return to Cambodia a few years ago.
know me say 'you grow old because you think too much, you have too much work',"
Regardless of age and appearance, Ung Huot is earning himself
increasing prominence, and plaudits.
His workload is unlikely to ease
off. Taking over the Foreign Minister's chair under controversial circumstances
- replacing Prince Norodom Sorivudh, who quit - he finds himself at the helm of
Cambodia's bid to improve it's international relations.
Ung Huot never
planned to be a politician [he trained as an economist], and says he went into
it out of a desire to play a part in the achievement of peace in
"I never dreamed of anything, [only] that one day there will be
peace in Cambodia."
An Australian citizen, Huot has spent much of his
adult life there before his return to Cambodia.
After completing a
bachelor's degree in commerce in Phnom Penh, he received a Colombo Plan
scholarship to study in Australia in 1971. He counts himself lucky not to have
returned immediately to Cambodia after completing a master's degree in business
administration at Melbourne University.
Four close friends, also students
in Australia, returned to Cambodia in 1975, as the Khmer Rouge took over the
All four - whose university education put them among the
"intellectual" class hated by the KR - were later killed in the infamous S21, or
Toul Sleng, detention and torture center in Phnom Penh.
Huot had decided
to stay a little longer overseas, a move he says saved his
"Otherwise I would have been what Cambodians used to call
'fertilizer', like many students who returned.
"This kind of thing we
don't want to see happening again," he says. "This part of the history doesn't
help us very much now in the task of rebuilding this nation, because most of our
intellectuals were killed."
Living in Victory, Australia, the seeds of
his future interest in politics were planted by his involvement in helping
refugees who escaped Pol Pot's rule to go to Australia.
In 1981, after
the KR government's eviction, he began his alliance with the royalist Funcinpec
party, becoming its Australia and Asia president. He also worked as an
information officer involved in arranging humanitarian assistance for Khmer
refugees along the Thai border.
He returned to Cambodia after the 1991
Paris Peace Accords offered the hope of peace in Cambodia.
United Nations-sponsored general elections. he served as the party's campaign
director in Phnom Penh.
Memories of that time do not sit easily in his
mind. He says he does not want to talk about the "dirty and dangerous" election
period, but refers to having to lock himself up in the party's compound - when
he would have rather gone to a restaurant for a meal - at times.
back, I sometimes feel very sad. Sometimes I feel why the hell should I come and
be involved in that kind of mess."
He counts King Norodom Sihanouk,
however, as the "catalyst" who allowed Cambodia to start down the road of
democracy and peace.
He believes the Royal coalition government borne out
of the elections, against the odds and beyond all predictions, has been
He acknowledges it was an uneasy "marriage" - one of
convenience - which King Sihanouk proposed for Prince Norodom Ranariddh and Hun
Sen as co-Prime Ministers.
Many people had expected that Funcinpec, as
the winner of the most votes, would run the country.
But he says that
without the coalition government, the country could have gone back to even
greater division and war.
He urged the Cambodian people to be patient for
"The speed of light is 360,000km per second but the speed of the
wishes of the people is 700,000km per second," he says.
"They want everything overnight.
"They have to think deeper about the
other alternative rather than more violence, more killing, than there is
He was first appointed Minister of Education in the government,
where he earned a name for fighting injustice, inequality and
He says that most of the credit for improving the education
system, one of the keys to solving the country's problems, must go to the
But he acknowledges the praise he received during
his education tenure, saying: "They [teachers] said what I did was to cure the
disease without doing surgery."
Huot, who considers himself a fast
learner, says his new Foreign Minister's position is causing him "fewer
headaches" than his previous ministerial role.
After three months in the
job, he cites Cambodia's proposed joining of the Association of South-East Asian
Nations as his most important task. The other, he said, was to ensure friendly
relations with other countries.