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
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
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.