The Minister of Information's third novel "Mr. Lawyer" has been slowed
up-Khieu Kanharith is learning Unicode. His first book "The Last Smile"
(1982) was a sabre-rattling political novel, with one character based loosely on
Hun Sen. His second, "The One Who Goes Away," compiles tender observations
of a life spent in Cambodia. It's wild stuff for a man who's been described as the
"mouthpiece" of the strait-laced CPP, but it's just another delicious incongruity
His Excellency Khieu Kanharith, Minister of Information, survived the Khmer Rouge and a stint in jail.
Born in Phnom Penh in 1951 to the family of a customs official, Kanharith devoured
the fiction of Jules Verne as a child. As a young man he moved on to Sartre, Camus
and Lenin. Under the Khmer Rouge he escaped the purge of the "petty bourgeois"
with help of rural villagers. After January 7, 1979, he returned to the capital,
was reunited with his parents in a chance encounter, and got work as a speechwriter
for the then-mayor of Phnom Penh. He weighed a career in diplomacy, but chose journalism
instead. "I became a journalist to help my country," Kanharith said.
He was editor-in-chief of Kampuchea, the most influential newspaper in the PRK/SOC,
until he was sacked and arrested in 1990. The move, he said, was prompted by a radio
statement in which he called "plurality inevitable" in Cambodia. He became
a personal advisor to Hun Sen in 1991.
With a grin, a glint and an avuncular wink-this is Khieu Kanharith: man of letters.
He greets the Post in his wood-paneled office inside the funky, dilapidated Ministry
Khieu Kanharith spoke to Charles McDermid on June 13.
When I arrived in Cambodia in 2004, my newspaper colleagues all talked about partying
with you: Sir, you're a legend.
You know why? During the war people didn't like journalists. No matter what they
wouldn't let you write because they thought it would be something bad. There's one
great thing that will break the ice: drinking. The first thing to learn as a journalist
is drinking. As we say in Khmer, "Alcohol in, secret out." When people
know you're drinking, you can learn a lot. But I don't do it like before, I'm too
old and have too much work.
What do you think of the Western press corps in Cambodia?
The problem is most of them can't see out of the box. Sometimes people who speak
English are treated well, and non-English speakers aren't. You have to understand:
Cambodians know the song you want to hear, and we can sing it for you. All Cambodians
are survivors of the Khmer Rouge and all the other tragedies. When you ask a question,
we know what kind of answer you want to hear.
What were your first impressions of Hun Sen?
It was 1979. He was a young man but he had learned a lot. He would make a speech
and record his voice, then he would listen to it again and again. Hun Sen taught
himself to be a good speaker. At that time he didn't have time to learn French or
English. Now, I'm sure he can understand French and English. I know he's writing
a biography because he showed me his notebook from 1978. It wasn't carefully kept,
but he has a perfect, photographic memory. Successful leaders must have some of the
same qualities, and they must have ambition, political ambition. Hun Sen knows what
to do. Many say he's uneducated: they're wrong. He reads all the time and takes lots
How often do you see the Prime Minister?
When the political situation is tense we talk all the time. When things are quiet,
some time can pass. People say he only keeps people near to him that are loyal. But
he values competence not loyalty. The priorities for Hun Sen are in this order: competence,
how you act, and then loyalty.
Many people have described the CPP as "secretive." Is this the truth?
No. Many of us-even myself who has worked and studied with foreigners-we have an
uneasy attitude around foreigners. This is a misunderstanding. This isn't CPP secrecy,
but we feel uneasy.
Does the CPP have an image problem?
Yes, we know it. We've been told to find a spin doctor. We tried one, but with no
success. Now we're looking for a Cambodian.
Do you like your job?
It's not my philosophy to comment on that. I try to do my best at the job I have
been given. People ask me, "Why have you stayed [as Minister of Information]
for so long? You must be the best." The truth is nobody wants this job.
Do you have hope for the future of Cambodia?
Yes, that's right. I came here in 1979. You could walk along the road and hear your
footsteps echo. Many of my friends fled the country. They said, "Vietnam will
control us forever." They lost confidence and left their country. I preferred
to stay here-after the Khmer Rouge I could survive anything. This is the strongpoint
of the CPP: in 1979 the CPP had 70 to 100 members. To rule the country we needed
to integrate educated people with knowledge of the West. The CPP had to work with
other people, to be flexible. This is the tradition of the CPP: to be flexible and
How does it make Hun Sen feel when he hears allegations that he is controlled
by Vietnam, and has lingering links to Communist tactics?
He says he doesn't care. Here's an example: in 1986, one year after Hun Sen became
Prime Minister he recommended Cambodia award land ownership. Around the world, in
the Communist-so-called Socialist-Bloc, he was called a reformist. Many people say
Vietnam controls Cambodia, but when we started land ownership, we were among the
first countries to break away. This shows how independent Hun Sen is. Even before
Perestroika and Deng Xiao Ping, in 1986 Hun Sen made a strong move. China only approved
land ownership this year. It was the same when he decided to negotiate with King
Sihanouk. People said, "Why bring him in?" and "Why do we need this?"
But Hun Sen understood very well. He's a political animal.
Are the rumors about rifts in the CPP true?
Yes and no. You can't avoid rifts. It's how you settle them that's important. We
say, "You cannot decide by yourself. We have a Central Committee." Compromise
is our tradition; everything is smooth.
Do you ever get tired of explaining things to journalists?
It's not that simple, maybe because I've known Hun Sen since 1979. I understand him.
When he scolded RFA recently is a good example. You wouldn't understand because you
don't speak Khmer. But [RFA reporter] Um Samrin should've asked, "Whether the
power sharing agreement [between the CPP and Funcinpec] is over or not?" but
he said "Now, it shows that the power agreement has stopped." He asked
this in front of Funcinpec MPs. Hun Sen was saving the face of Funcinpec. It was
as if you were with your wife and someone asks you about your concubine.
I read in one history book that in 1991, as soon as you were released from detention,
Hun Sen asked you to be his advisor. Why would he approach a recently arrested journalist
for this post?
He asked me to be his advisor, and in 1992, to be Party spokesman. I said I had only
one condition: don't ask me to say something I don't believe.
Do you ever say things you don't believe?