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Chess player, philosopher, a leader of the country: a Sunday spent with Hun Sen

Chess player, philosopher, a leader of the country: a Sunday spent with Hun Sen

E arlier this year, reporter Karen Emmons spent a day with Second Premier Hun

Sen. She discovered a leader with a sense of both destiny and history - and one who

firmly believes that the Cambodian situation can only best be understood by the Cambodian


HUN Sen is playing chess.

It is something he does only on Sundays and not passively. It is a game he loves.

"I'm happiest when playing chess," he said when asked what makes him happy.

At times quiet in heavy concentration or shrieking and grabbing a shabby pawn from

the hand of his opponent, a nearby farm caretaker wearing rubber thongs, Hun Sen,

wearing white Velcro sneakers that said "Winner", joked freely, smoked

555s, sipped from a glass of Hennessy and Coke and answered an eclectic bit of questions.

The bright afternoon sun skipped off a pond behind us but was held back by the blue

bamboo shades of his neighbor's thatched gazebo where we had lunch and sat waiting

to visit Hun Sen's Development Center. It was nearly a year ago and I was at "his

farm" in Takmao for Time magazine for a day-in-the life peek at the private

side of Hun Sen. The Post has been waiting to get its mileage out of that day.

We started out early, driving ahead of Hun Sen and his entourage. I was with Hun

Sen's biographer, Elsie Webber, and we followed Sam Bo who was going to interpret

the Khmer even though the Prime Minister is said to speak English well. Just outside

Phnom Penh Hun Sen stopped for a bowl of noodles and when the sirens of his bodyguard-filled

Toyotas (resembling those used by the United Nations peace keepers) caught up to

us, we slipped into the convoy, turning right away from the river.

The house, a plain, typical wooden structure with a concrete base stood near the

road as if begging for company. Indeed Hun Sen spends only Sundays here, occasionally

sleeping over the night before. But even then he and his friends gather next door

in the gazebo by the pond owned by Em Samang from the Interior Ministry.

At 9:45am we sat in the house though. The living room where we talked till midday

was sparse; a wooden sofa and two matching chairs, tiles missing from the floor and

the clock broken at 5:45. On the wooden walls were hanging four plastic-covered posters

- the Swiss-like chalet and the fruit basket, etc. - typically found in the average

Khmer home. Hun Sen wore gray-blue cuffed slacks, a green short sleeve shirt under

a dark blue-green jacket that he never took off. Rani, his wife, sat demurely with

us in gold jeans and a black long sleeve blouse festooned with a colorful pheasant

print. The face of her gold Rolex was ringed with diamonds, her other wrist and neck

decorated with thin chains of gold and she wore tastefully lovely earrings of rubies

and diamonds. Later, when she slipped off her shoes in a field where monks kept vigil

over villagers digging a canal for the Development Center, I noticed a price tag

of 21.99 but failed to get the currency. Rani is a small woman with a large round

sweet face.

We talked mostly of Hun Sen's history and his habits. He wakes between 5am and 7am,

rarely finishes work before 10pm and usually falls to sleep by midnight. There is

no time anymore for exercise (not since 1989 has he played volleyball with his bodyguards)

Breakfast is the usual rice with fried and salted fish and always coffee. Hun Sen

says his doctor recommended coffee in 1984 to keep his blood pressure stable. "I'm

a person who gets fat easily," he adds.

He says in September 1994 he fell unconscious. His blood pressure had dipped low

then suddenly jumped and jumped and he had passed out. Shortly after he went to a

hospital in France where doctors found nothing wrong except that he was mostly overworked

and maybe short on sugar. He is ignoring any suggestions to slow down, but Rani says

he is not a workaholic. Nor does she worry about his smoking. Hun Sen jokingly compares

himself to a motor machine taken "to be repaired thinking there was only one

thing wrong but the repairer told me ten things were wrong." Rani confesses

that his bowels, liver and kidney sometimes get inflamed. He insists nothing is wrong.

"I consider myself to be a combatant."

Along with relaxing over chess and lunch with friends, Hun Sen passes Sundays to

prepare for his coming week. He reads papers from his advisers, including briefs

on what the newspapers have printed. If a story catches his interest, he will ask

to read it. He says his father, now deceased, always read many newspapers to know

what was going on. His mother, still alive, can not read nor write but is exceptional

in math and calculations, says Hun Sen. He gets his spirit from his parents, he says.

When he reads books he sticks to political science, economics and history - no spy

thrillers. "That's my expertise already," he laughs. Back when I met with

Hun Sen he was plowing through Cherikarmai, which is about the nature of Khmer and

was written in 1972 by Bun Chan Mol, a democrat who was imprisoned during the French

colonization. Of the Western experience with Cambodia, Hun Sen has read only Sideshow,

When the War was Over and Brother Enemy.

About his children, he says three study in France and two in the United States. [The

eldest has since become the first Cambodian to enter West Point military academy,

located in New York.] The sixth child who had been abandoned as a baby and adopted

by the family has not yet started school. Hun Sen says his house is filled with the

grandchildren of a cousin who also call him Daddy.

Hun Sen says he has friends "on different levels, from farmers and workers to

highest-ranking." But "it is hard to say one is close. The one who I play

chess with knows me the most."

Observed as a student of politics, Hun Sen says he likes to study philosophies, ideologies,

history and political science. But he seems to have a love-hate relationship with

politics, "politics is ungratefulness. People can betray friends because of

politics." As it was put to me, his operating philosophy is to "know reality".

That is, to know what it is to walk in another man's shoes, be they leather bound

or rubber thonged.

With these basics established, the conversation turned to Hun Sen's Khmer Rouge period.

He was born in Kompong Cham on 5 August, 1951 though his biographer says someone

in the Foreign Affairs ministry once made a mistake by a year and his birthdate remained

since as 1952. He left in 1965 when he was 14 to study in Phnom Penh but returned

four years later, just three months before the Lon Nol coup, because of a family

problem. While in Phnom Penh a cousin had sent him delivering messages around the

capital, but Hun Sen says he never knew what they were about. He says back then he

never cared about politics. He thought of being a teacher.

As the coup shredded what he saw was a peaceful landscape, and soon too to be recoiling

from American bombing, anger forced him to make a hard decision to leave home and

join Norodom Sihanouk's call to resistance and "make a struggle for liberation."

While he had relatives at the front, he joined with other students and villagers.

They never heard the name of Pol Pot, he posits. "Those fighting against the

aggressors were not considered Khmer Rouge." While in the trenches he decided

to be a pilot when the war ended.

But suddenly, there he was in a hospital, with a left eye he would soon lose from

an injury on 16 April 1975 and realizing, he says, that he was in an army where the

Khmer Rouge had seized power. The injury kept him in the hospital for a year and

convalescing for one more. Though he should have been assigned to the invalid unit,

he was given a battalion to command back in his home province where they mostly farmed.

During that time he met Rani. He goes on about how when finally given orders to attack

at other Cambodians, he fled to Vietnam and spent the first 22 days in prison waiting

for secret asylum. He says the Vietnamese refused because they did not want to interfere.

"Lucky for me Pol Pot attacked Vietnam." On 20 June 1977 he remembers how

he led the force across the border against the Khmer Rouge, thereby making him the

first Khmer Rouge defector. "That is the reality. No one can deny." But

no one, he contends, could avoid the control of the guerrillas.

After this, our conversation jumped around and we talked about things that were more

interesting a year ago. I pull up only the high points now:

Of the scenario until the next election? "It's already designed: Keep the

alliance between all parties in Parliament and government. It's the basis for stability....

Of Malaysia' weighty presence? "We open the door. Anyone can come in. Malaysia

comes more than the others... Maybe because Malaysia underwent similar experiences

resisting Communist forces for 40 years. Maybe they're confident we can get rid of

the Khmer Rouge problem."

But of Malaysia's potential political influence? "I don't believe in the

21st century such a thing will happen... I used to lead the country with a foreign

country here... Vietnam has no intention now to colonize Cambodia. If so, it wouldn't

be allowed by Cambodia... such a thing can't happen. It's out of date thinking."

On being Prime Minister? Before the coup I didn't want to be Prime Minister. After

the coup I realized I must be Prime Minister until 1998 because some politicians

are not loyal or sincere... CPP has no intention to lose the government and cause

instability. The political structure will remain until 1998. I will run..."

Is the CPP controlling the government? "The CPP is not thinking that way,

but it's the reality of history. The CPP has its place from the last 14 years. (It

has) resources, 100,000 armed forces and 50,000 police. In reality, no political

party has more people, more staff, more experience than CPP... splits have ruined

the BLDP and Funcinpec..."

Of a Hun Sen CPP and a Chea Sim CPP? "We, in reality, run only one CPP. No

one can understand the CPP with a European way of thinking. But let them maintain

their assessment. Like in the military, if you have no proper information about the

enemy, you can't attack them. We wish the same for CPP."

Finishing this issue it was time for lunch. We walked out the back of his house and

Hun Sen was stepping lightly. I suppose he thought he was free of me. Walking down

the dirt road that led to his pond, Hun Sen talked about how he had had trouble getting

the banana trees to grow along with the mangos and coconuts because of flooding on

the 200 by 40 meter property. "Some people say I'm the 7th millionaire in the

world," he says laughing. Though he has only eight pigs in the shed, they have

no names.

Through a cluster of palm trees we came to his neighbor's gazebo. Rani and her friends

were fussing over the food. With soldiers milling on the fringe, finance minister

Keat Chhon, Bun Rani, Pol Saroeun (deputy chief of general staff) and Em Saman (secretary

of state for the Ministry of Interior) gathered like guys at recess.

Elsie Webber and I were served a separate fete of steak, boiled potato, stuffed crab,

green beans and fried fish. The others indulged in the Cambodian dishes. Mention

American policy, as I did between courses, and Hun Sen winds up like an animated

top spinning across the emotional meter.

"Lately the policy of America is very ridiculous... Which means the CIA is very

poor... First, America hates the Khmer Rouge but America loves any Cambodian who

supports the Khmer Rouge. I mean they support those, Son Sann and Sam Rainsy who

make alliance(s) with the Khmer Rouge. Second, America hates the one who violates

human rights and who push racist policies but America supports the ones who practice

racist policies - Son Sann and Sam Rainsy want to deport Vietnamese from Cambodia.

Third, America needs to support those who maintain the Constitution... but America

supports Sam Rainsy and Son Sann who want to destroy the Constitution by giving full

power to the King.

"America hates the CPP. They don't like us. They consider us pro-Vietnam and

they don't like Vietnam. Second, they hate the way we are Communist and so find every

way so we won't win the election (Ed: 1994). But America has a true alliance with

the CPP because America is against the Khmer Rouge. Without the CPP, the Khmer Rouge

would be here today."

But America seems to support you: He smiles. Says nothing. Continues eating.

Does America have much influence here? "Some. America is not yet properly prepared

to be consistent with the situation. They misunderstand the situation. They'd like

to abolish the Khmer Rouge but their activity is to support the one who supports

the Khmer Rouge. Their idea is one way and their action is another way... I don't,

I can't understand why they are (with) us but they don't understand us. They don't

understand the Cambodian way of thinking. Maybe they learned too much Western philosophy.

I study a lot of American history but I don't understand America. If I try to understand

Cambodia in the Western way, it's wrong...."

(Finance Minister) Keat Chon pops up here, interrupting. "When Hun Sen became

Samdech, I congratulated him and said he must remain in politics another 50 years.

He is the destiny of the country."

Still clinging to his train of thought, his energy rising and his meal dwindling,

Hun Sen continues. "America doesn't understand the political affairs. Before,

I understand that they hate CPP because they hate Vietnam. But after the Paris Peace

Agreement, what is American policy? It is different from the mechanism they are practicing

because America supports that which is against American policy....

"I think people from the West support free-market economy but they support those

against privatization. They think people coming from Communism don't know anything

about democracy and can't carry out free-market economy. We had free-market before

the Paris Agreements. The free-market was not created by the Paris Agreements. The

Paris Agreements were created by the free-market.

"The political circle in America - I don't get angry with them. I don't understand


While Hun Sen catches his breath, Keat Chhon steps in again. "They're narrow-minded.

They judge the situation with clichés."

It is not long before lunch is declared finished. Someone is heading for a hammock

and Hun Sen makes a bee-line for the worn-out chessboard. He tells me to go home

and return a few hours later to go to the Development Center. I dog for more time

and he says curtly in English: "Sit." Soon he is laughing, yelling "OK"

when checking. In his enthusiasm he thuds the wooden pieces on the board. "He's

not disciplined" he keeps repeating of his opponent, Po, who accuses him back

of touching pieces he shouldn't. Games are quick, about 20 minutes each and I am

told Hun Sen usually wins.

I weave gingerly around his moves. Who will succeed the throne when the King dies?

Seems innocent enough and he retorts quickly, but later asks for his answer back

and sorry, I obliged.

What's his rank in the CPP? "Its not important for me to have any rank in the

CPP. The leaders have confidence in me, even Chea Sim and Heng Samrin. That's the

strong point of CPP.

Without Hun Sen, where would Cambodia be today? "They still have the ability

to solve the problems. The authority of the country is not subject to any (single)


Who are your enemies? [matter of factly] "The Khmer Rouge. And poverty."

Who is running Cambodia? "The Parliament is running Cambodia today.

How much influence does Australia have with the government? "The Australians

are more courageous than the others. At the time of the Australian hostages, Australia

continued to be brave in helping Cambodia. At that point, Australia didn't hesitate

in declaring military aid to Cambodia... It's true they help us a lot. We can't allow

them [to influence] and they don't have any intention."

What will the political configuration by 1998 likely be? I think Cambodia still needs

a coalition government for a long time - not less than ten years. Not sure it will

be me. The political situation is like that, it requires cooperation from all political


Sar Kheng says he is charmed with the American democracy model. "I don't know

who thinks what."

What do you think of the American democracy model? "It's good for America. (I'm)

not sure it's good for others.

After a while of watching him play, I come back, a little more lightly.

What is your idea of perfect happiness? "What is perfect happiness? [Lightheartedly]

I'm most happy when playing chess."

What is your greatest fear? "My wife. She's not tough, but we have to be fearful

of her, respect her."

Greatest extravagance? "Smoking."

On what occassion do you lie? "Sometimes I lie to my children, when they demand

something at night that can't be found, especially when they're crying."

What is your greatest achievement? "One, toppling the Pol Pot regime. Two, contributing

to leading this country into a market economy. Three, The quest for a solution to

the Cambodian problem - that may be the greatest in my life. We can't achieve more

than what we have today. Even UNTAC couldn't do more than that. I mean, (fix) the

split that occurred more than 20 years ago. What is left by history is not my mistake.

My generation has had to solve the problem left behind by an older generation.

What is your most treasured possession? "My children. It's that for most people

in the world."

What is the trait you most dislike in yourself? "Quick temper."

In others? "Submissiveness. In our country people who like to get the benefit

of others are submissive to higher levels. I like being argued with. The people who

stay with me are those who can argue. I don't like people so submissive to others

or answer yes, yes all the time."

What is the character you like most in a man? "The character of being a gentleman."

In a woman? "What age?

Young, middle-aged...? I like those who speak lightly. For me I don't like women

who demand too much. Today they have too much freedom. I acknowledge their political

rights... I don't like people talking that women are the instruments of pleasure

for men. It's up to women to what extent they respect themselves. I feel displeased

when people say men look down on women but if women can respect themselves, there'd

be no problem.'

What are Cambodia's strengths? "In this time, solidarity of the Nation. Compared

with many years ago, we are in a very favorable condition."

It's weaknesses? "Compared to the last 20 years, our solidarity is important

to us. But it's our weakness also on this point. I mean, the point in which we could

have reconciliation is a part of the Khmer. The Khmer Rouge don't want to reconcile,

only to oppose others.

How do you feel about the Khmer Rouge returning to Government? "We have no hope

on that and we have no intention to take the Khmer Rouge with us."

What mistakes have you made in your life? "My biggest mistake was the late reforms.

Compared to the favorable conditions, the economic reforms should have been more


What is the hardest lesson learned? "The social-economic problem. It's no ordinary

problem. Many countries are unsuccessful with this."

If you are not the 7th millionaire, what are you? "The reality you have seen."

What music do you like? "Traditional music."

Whom do you admire? "My parents, grandparents. This I can't deny. In times of

difficulty they still were able to raise us. Some people I admired in the past, but

then they behaved badly. Those already dead I can't admire because I have no acquaintance.

For a prson still alive, I think I admire no one. After tomorrow I don't know what

they'll do. That's why I don't want my children in politics.

After two and a half hours of chess and joking with friends, duty jerked Hun Sen

away, to oversee work being done in the Development Center 20kms away. Standing in

the dirt among the people, joking, he tried to inspire them to build and use toilets.

He tells a spunky old woman with a shaved head he will loan her money to buy the

ox or cow she needs. "Why don't you just give them to me?" she bellowed

back. All this canal digging - a work-for-rice scheme - has Hun Sen's blood racing.

He pushed his visit through dusk and we part, symbolically I feel, in the dark.


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