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,
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
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
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
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."