From Hun Sen, who has been in power for 29 years and counting, to Ek Ti Un, who was in office for only a week, veteran journalist and author Chhay Sophal’s new Khmer-language book Who Are the 36 Cambodian Prime Ministers? delves into the public and private lives of every Cambodian prime minister since the office was created in 1945. Bringing together four years of research and interviews, the book brings to light facts about the country’s leaders and insights into how the country’s political stage has evolved.
Q&A/ WITH CHHAY SOPHAL, BOOK AUTHOR AND INDEPENDENT MEDIA AND COMMUNICATIONS CONSULTANT
What are some curious facts you can tell us about Cambodia’s prime ministers?
Well, Prince Sisowath Watchayavong, who was the Prime Minister in 1947 and 1948 had five wives and 25 children. King Father Norodom Sihanouk held the office on 10 separate occasions between 1945 and 1962. Several of those stints were only for a couple of weeks. Khim Tit, who was briefly prime minister in 1956, was involved in the French military occupation of Germany which earned him a great deal off acclaim. But then after he became prime minister, he developed an anti-French attitude.
Have there been any prime ministers with strange personal habits?
Some PMs had many wives and mistresses, while others liked smoking. Ung Huot [the Funcinpec prime minister who served alongside Hun Sen in 1997 and 1998] likes hiking and abseiling. Such sports are not popular in Cambodia. This is because he lived and studied in Australia.
How important and powerful is the office of prime minister in Cambodia and how has that changed over the years?
The influence wielded by the office has varied from prime minister to prime minister. When King Father Norodom Sihanouk became the country’s first prime minister on March 18, 1945, he was also the reigning monarch, so he was very powerful. But when Son Ngoc Thanh became the second prime minister on August 14 in the same year, the real power was still in the hands of the king and the royal family. The office of prime minister did not really much have power until March 18, 1970, when Sihanouk was ousted. Between March 19, 1970, and April 17, 1975, there were six prime ministers. Nol was first in that period, but he quickly moved to the top post as the president, and the five prime ministers under him had no power. The first time the office held real power was when Pol Pot took the office on May 13, 1976.
Why has Hun Sen been able to last so much longer than any other prime minister?
Unlike most of Cambodia’s prime ministers, Hun Sen had a background in the military, so he knows the tactics of war well and knows how to defeat his opponents. Also, his family were farmers, so he know what the farmers need. Building up armed forces and farmers around him is the way that he stays in power longer than others. It’s also important that Hun Sen likes his men and never forgets his friends and colleagues who used to work with him. This is part of a tactic of building up the number of close people around him.
At least 10 of Cambodia’s prime ministers have been assassinated or poisoned over the years. Have any died while they were still in office?
Prince Sisowath Youtevong who was prime minister from December 15, 1946 until July 15, 1947, when he became ill. He died on July 17, 1947, and his body was cremated the next day. Speculation about why the prince died at such an early age and at the height of his success ran rampant. Was there any sign of him being sick or contracting some kind of illness? Did the French poison him or did the democrats themselves have anything to do with his death? Who would benefit the most about Prince Yutevong’s death? The mystery surrounding his death has not been satisfactorily resolved.
What are some other examples?
Leu Koeus was prime minister for nine days between September 20 and 29, 1949. He was then the leader of the National Union Movement but on January 14, 1950, he was fatally wounded after a hand grenade was thrown into his party headquarters. A few other prime ministers were killed by the Khmer Rouge after they seized power in 1975.
Other prime ministers have also been imprisoned after the left office.
This is due to the culture of revenge or the strategy of “when the water rises fish eat ants and when the water recedes ants eat fish”. Cambodian history tells everyone that due to disputes among leaders and politicians, the Kingdom that used to be the greatest empire of Asia has lost its image and its territory has become smaller. For the love of power, they killed each other and asked foreigners, especially the neighbours, for help and support to fight their enemies. So if Khmers stop using the strategy “when water’s up fish eat ants and water’s down ants eat fish” or political culture of revenge but strongly unite, the country will move forward.
Interview by Will Jackson