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With friends like these

Prime Minister Hun Sen gestures towards former Australian foreign minister, Gareth Evans (second right)
Prime Minister Hun Sen gestures towards former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans (second right) yesterday at the Sofitel during the opening of an international conference. PHOTO SUPPLIED

With friends like these

Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday used the opening of a major international conference in Phnom Penh to publicly confront former Australian foreign minister and Paris Peace Agreements architect Gareth Evans over why he had attacked him in a scathing article last year.

Evans, once called the “father of Cambodia” by senior Cambodian People’s Party lawmaker Chheang Vun, was seated awkwardly behind the premier on stage as he delivered the opening keynote address for a two-day conference on the Responsibility to Protect doctrine at the Sofitel Phokeethra hotel.

Turning and directly facing Evans in front of numerous diplomats, dignitaries and foreign scholars, including Australian Ambassador Alison Burrows, Hun Sen pointedly asked why Evans no longer wanted to be friends, to his obvious discomfort and the crowd’s surprise.

“I don’t know what disease you had [or] why you criticised me last year. I don’t know whether you really said it or the media published it wrongly, [because] we are longtime friends”, the premier said, referring to an opinion piece Evans wrote last February that said the government had been getting away with murder. Hun Sen then reflected on the time that he and Evans had spent working together in the years leading up to the 1991 Paris Accords that laid the foundations for the UN-sponsored elections in 1993.

He took a dig at Evans and the international community for their reluctance to explicitly refer to preventing the return of the Khmer Rouge in the wording of the text. “Why did [Evans] dare not to speak about the trials of the Khmer Rouge at that time? What was the world afraid of? What were the five big countries afraid of?”

The agreements, which were signed by all the warring Cambodian factions, including the radical communists, instead referred to Khmer Rouge atrocities as the “policies and practices of the past”.

“I just have a feeling that it is inappropriate for Gareth Evans to criticise me. We have had many memories of working together … you and me were partners in negotiations,” Hun Sen continued, recalling late-night negotiations at the Jakarta Informal Meetings in the late 1980s.

“We ate rice in Sydney. You drove a car by yourself; my wife and I were in a car by ourselves,” he said. “We have been friendly together. But [now] you don’t want to be friends anymore?”

The premier tried unsuccessfully to lighten the tense mood by adding he was “just joking” but curtly added that “for some of it … I’m not joking, it’s real”.

The pair exchanged a handshake and a few words at the conclusion of Hun Sen’s speech.

Evans, who currently serves as chancellor at the Australian National University, had maintained a close relationship with Hun Sen following the UNTAC period.

But in an op-ed published in the Post and several other newspapers a year ago, he said that the time had come for Cambodia’s political leaders to be “named, shamed, investigated and sanctioned” by the international community.

“For far too long, Hun Sen and his colleagues have been getting away with violence, human-rights abuses, corruption, and media and electoral manipulation without serious internal or external challenge,” he wrote.

Evans said that while he had “resisted strong public criticism” for a long time in the hope that the situation could change, the CPP’s behaviour had “moved beyond the civilised pale”.

Evans declined to comment in detail yesterday at the conference. “I’m just glad to know the prime minister read my article,” he said.

The premier also used the podium yesterday to reassert his absolute opposition to the UN-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal pursuing cases beyond what it is currently hearing.

International co-investigating judge Mark Harmon has reportedly released an order for Case 004 suspect Im Chem to be brought to the court that is not being acted on by local authorities.

“We have to think about the importance of peace, the importance of life,” Hun Sen said. “How many people will die if war comes again?”

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