Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - A pawn or a realist? Ung Huot moves up

A pawn or a realist? Ung Huot moves up

A pawn or a realist? Ung Huot moves up

F oreign Minister Ung Huot appears set - in the most controversial circumstances -

to fill Prince Norodom Ranariddh's shoes in Phnom Penh. Trish Fitzgerald and Jason

Barber profile the man who would be Prime Minister.

A QUIET, moderate technocrat with a high profile abroad - and likely to be politically

malleable at home, many analysts believe - Ung Huot seems a tailor-made solution

to Hun Sen's search for a new First Prime Minister.

Cambodia's Foreign Minister has cemented his rapid rise to political prominence with

his nomination by the remnants of Funcinpec to replace Prince Norodom Ranariddh in

the top job.

With his nomination backed by Hun Sen, Huot looks set to tie the knot in what he

himself predicts will be a "perfect" marriage with the CPP strongman in

a new coalition government.

If approved by the National Assembly, Huot's appointment will bolster Hun Sen's chances

of providing a much-needed internationally-acceptable face to the government, in

the wake of his ouster of Ranariddh.

Whether Huot will be credible enough to really convince anyone that he is anything

more than a subordinate of the Second Prime Minister remains uncertain, but in the

meantime it is clear that he is the best that Hun Sen could hope for.

The 52-year-old Foreign Minister is well-recognized internationally, credentials

which he will no doubt use to open doors as the new government pleads its case to

foreign donors and governments.

"Ranariddh is waging a diplomatic war against us, so I will be invaluable because

I have the respect of so many foreign countries," Huot said after accepting

the nomination for First Prime Minister last week.

In particular, Huot has spear-headed Cambodia's bid to join the Asean regional club,

developing contacts that he will now have to put to good use to support Hun Sen's

efforts to sever Asean's attachment to Ranariddh.

Huot appears generally regarded as a personable and competent Foreign Minister -

and a political pragmatist - by Phnom Penh diplomats, many of whom saw his nomination

as a shrewd choice.

"He's an ideal choice because he'll polish Hun Sen's image, nothing more, nothing

less. He's a great face for the government," one diplomat told Reuters.

"This is a positive development which should be widely accepted by the international

community," said one ASEAN diplomat.

Added another Asean envoy: "He is among the best and most qualified Funcinpec

members. It's a good choice. It's someone Asean could work with."

However, when asked to rate Huot's international credibility as First Prime Minister,

the diplomat responded: "For the time being, none."

The crux of the matter is that, while he may be considered a good Foreign Minister,

Ung Huot faces his biggest diplomatic test in trying to convince the world that he's

an acceptable person to replace an elected Prime Minister ousted by military means.

The United States bluntly rejected Huot's right to be Prime Minister and Asean -

after Hun Sen gave short-shrift to a visiting delegation - said that it still recognizes


Several foreign diplomats agreed that Huot's easy-going and relatively passive nature

- and the circumstances of his rise to the Prime Minister's job - would likely make

him very "malleable" in the capable hands of Hun Sen.

Huot himself was last week upbeat on the future government. "Me and Hun Sen

will be perfect. There will be no more violence, we will run the country fairly and

democratically, there will be one hundred percent consensus," he said July 16.

Huot, who was out of the country during the July 5-6 fighting in Phnom Penh - to

attend a Consultative Group meeting of aid donors - met Ranariddh in France before

returning to Cambodia. He turned down the Prince's request that he stick with him,

Huot said.

The Foreign Minister alleged that Ranariddh, by provoking a military confrontation

with the CPP, had forfeited his right to be prime minister.

"He blew his chances to rule because he wanted too much power, whereas I believe

we cannot win on all sides, and I will never use force."

Funcinpec members who remain loyal to Ranariddh claim Huot will be a puppet. "He

will do whatever he is told by Hun Sen - he has the gun at his back," said one

cabinet minister who fled to Bangkok.

"Huot has no military forces behind him," said another party member. "It

is a disappointing choice because he is too soft. At this time we need someone who

has military and political strength if Funcinpec is to survive."

Analysts say Hun Sen favored Huot's appointment over that of Toan Chay, the Siem

Reap governor and former resistance fighter with strong ties to Funcinpec's military.

In line with his ascent through ministerial ranks - he filled the Foreign Minister's

shoes after Prince Norodom Sirivudh resigned in protest at Sam Rainsy's sacking as

Finance Minister in 1994 - Huot appears to have been the right person at the right

time for the prime ministerial job.

He is a Member of Parliament - a Constitutional requirement for the PM's job, which

Toan Chay didn't meet - and was able to garner broad support from Funcinpec officials

who remain in Cambodia. After almost 10 days of closed door meetings between Funcinpec

factions, Huot edged out another front-runner, Loy Sim Chheang, for the nomination.

Both Toan Chay and Loy Sim Chheang offered conditional public support for Huot; Sim

Chheang said it was a "temporary appointment" to save Cambodia from danger,

and Chay stressed that the nomination must be approved by the National Assembly.

"I will take on the First Prime Minister's job because it is important that

I stay here to ensure political stability," Huot told journalists when his candidacy

was announced. He added that one condition he had insisted on was that he also retain

the Foreign Affairs portfolio, a move which will allow him to retain his input into

Asean affairs.

While political observers believe that Hun Sen has supported Huot's nomination because

of his potential to court international goodwill, ironically the Foreign Minister

represents several things which the Second Prime Minister has previously railed against:

Huot holds dual citizenship and spent most of Cambodia's recent tumultuous history

outside his homeland.

Huot left Cambodia on a Colombo Plan scholarship to study Business Administration

in Australia in 1971. After finishing his studies in 1975, he decided to stay overseas

a little longer, a decision he has said saved his life. Several of his Khmer student

friends returned to Cambodia, as the Pol Pot regime took over, and were later executed.

He secured Australian citizenship, and worked for almost ten years with Telecom,

rising to the position of Assistant Manager of Marketing. After the Khmer Rouge's

ouster from power, he became involved in politics, serving as president of the Funcinpec

party in Australia between 1982-89.

After the 1991 Paris Peace Accords, he returned to Cambodia, serving as Funcinpec's

campaign director in Phnom Penh in the 1993 elections.

He was appointed Minister of Education after the polls - earning praise for attempts

to stamp out school corruption - before winning the Foreign Affairs portfolio after

Sirivudh's resignation

While there were murmurings in the past 18 months that Huot was one of several Funcinpec

ministers supposedly growing closer to Hun Sen, he was generally considered a Ranariddh


At a July 16 interview, Huot portrayed himself as a man who had grown deeply frustrated

with his leader.

"Ranariddh wanted too much power. He appeared to have a moderate face but behind

the face, he was continually pushing and provoking Hun Sen."

In a 1995 interview with the Post, Huot spoke of the uneasy "marriage"

between Funcinpec and CPP being necessary to prevent greater divisions and war in


While the Khmer people "want everything over night", he urged a more realistic

approach, saying that "they have to think about the other alternative, rather

than more violence, more killing".

Huot also recalled the "dirty and dangerous" 1993 election campaign, and

referred to locking himself in Funcinpec's Phnom Penh compound for safety. At times,

he was left wondering "why the hell should I come and be involved in that kind

of mess".

Two years later, Ung Huot - who will presumably spear-head Funcinpec's campaign plans

for the next elections - clearly believes that further violence can be avoided.

"Hun Sen is not a monster," he said July 16. "Ranariddh engineered

it to look as if he was a mad men. Me and Hun Sen will be the perfect couple."


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