Strongman: The Extraordinary Life of Hun Sen follows the lives of the most powerful family in Cambodia, featuring intimate interviews with the Prime Minister, his wife Bun Rany and eldest son Hun Manet.
First published in 1999, the book has been divisive. The Economist damned the work as a ‘laudatory biography’, while the Jakarta Post insisted it was a genuine study, not a mere ‘hagiography’.
Behind the book are Julie and Haris C. Mehta, a Canada-based couple who worked as journalists in Southeast Asia for many years.
There have been no other biographies. That fact, they say, prompted them to put out a second edition at the beginning of June with new interviews and relevations.
Poppy McPherson reports.
Yours is the sole authorised biography of Hun Sen – how did you get the scoop?
H: Going back to 1997, which was when Hun Sen had just about overthrown [Prince Norodom] Ranariddh, I worked for the Singapore Business Times, so we knew the Hun Sen people very well. I met a man who was then Hun Sen’s interpreter and said, ‘Look, I’m planning to write a book on Hun Sen’. He said, ‘Sounds like a good idea.’ I wrote a letter to the Prime Minister and within 14 days he’d agreed.
What preconceptions did you have before meeting Hun Sen, and how did they compare to your impressions afterward?
H: When I saw [Hun Sen] for the first time, he was a very young man – lean, black hair neatly parted. He was a man who chain-smoked, he had a firm handshake. I got a very great sense of his power, and also a sense of the loyalty of his staff members.
He never really knows how much his staff can tolerate him – when he feels they can tolerate him no more, he goes for lunch.
The whole time he spoke Khmer, and there were hardly any occasions when he spoke English. In fact, there were only a couple of phrases he would use: some diplomatic phrases about the Cold War, or the Paris peace agreement.
In your book, Hun Sen says he sleeps only two hours a night. Do you believe that?
H: Yes, I do believe he sleeps two hours at night. He has not been able to sleep properly for several years. Having seen the inside of his office, which is full of his official papers, and then there is this corner where he keeps the CDs of his songs. He does write poetry and songs late into the night, he also listens to Khmer music.
In the first edition of the book, Hun Sen said he had no intention of encouraging his children to go into politics. Ahead of these elections it has become clear that is not the case. Why do you think he has had this change of heart?
H: Specifically, Hun Sen and Bun Rany told us: We don’t want our son, or any of our children, to enter politics. That was several years ago. Now in the last few years they seem to have had a reevaluation. They need to reinvent the CPP which, they feel, is in need of young blood.
J: I was quite intrigued when I spoke to Hun Manet, I was asking him specifically how he sees himself, vis a vis his father, as a leader. What was very tough for him to stomach was that his father really never had an off day – he felt the sheer investment, every single day, the anxiety that Hun Sen probably went through – he didn’t want that kind of life. My guess is that things have turned around a little bit and he’s been persuaded. There is a history of the next generation of leaders [in the region].
How would you respond to critics who have called the book a very flattering portrait?
H: This book covers Hun Sen’s life from childhood. There are no archives on that, so his life is recreated on the basis of interviews – not just with him. But historical memory is tricky, so you’re never sure what parts of the past people – especially with a traumatic past – wish to repress. Scholars have found that people who have been through genocide are scared to talk about the terrible traumas they’ve suffered. A lot of the Western criticism is probably based on the perceived deeds of the CPP.
J: Oral histories are always unstable and, just picking up on that idea of trauma theory, you can’t really know the truth because whose history is being recounted? Who is telling the story?
Harish, some of your work as a lecturer focuses on discussing human rights. How do you reconcile that work with profiling a man whose political party has been accused of numerous human rights abuses?
H: There were times when, in the interviews, we confronted Hun Sen with issues of human rights but whenever you confront someone in the CPP with a question about human rights, the answer you always get is this: Who committed human rights violations in our country? The answer to that is, ‘We had human rights violations conducted by the Nixon administration when they bombed us.’ Then they’ll tell you that the biggest violations came under the Khmer Rouge.
There are concerns that are very real, and are reflected in the book.
The ending of the book is ambiguous. Do you anticipate the Hun dynasty to continue? Or do you see some change ahead?
H: I see more or less a continuation of CPP in power mainly because they are the largest party. Unfortunately, the only party capable of standing up to the CPP was Funcinpec under Ranarridh. But Funcinpec broke up into so many parties – Sam Rainsey was a part of Funcinpec, along with Prince Sihanouk. Had all these people stayed together, they may have been able to pose a challenge to the CPP.
Certainly, I would like to get back to Hun Sen within the next couple of years and sit down for a day or so, for five or six hours of interviews and turn it into the basis for a long article. I want to have a look at this issue of the dynasty – is this a new Cambodian dynasty coming into being?