Marking 30 years in power yesterday, Prime Minister Hun Sen used the opening of a new bridge over the Mekong to once again cast an eye over his signature achievements, while admitting for the second time in as many months that his stewardship of Cambodia had not been without fault.
Yesterday’s anniversary had brought out mixed appraisals for the Kingdom’s prime minister, whose Cambodian People’s Party’s positive record on economic growth and peace-building sits uncomfortably next to its reputation for rampant corruption, human rights violations and violence.
The 62-year-old premier appeared to be acutely aware of this as he spoke to crowds at the inauguration of the new 2,200-metre Japanese-funded bridge, now the country’s largest, at Neak Leung town in Kandal province.
“There was [an article] published in one newspaper that appeared only all negative [about me] … but there were also interviews [inside] where some people said bad and some people said good, and I thank both the people that said bad things and the people that said good things,” he said.
“Both good and bad [things] have always happened, but one has to look back to when Hun Sen became prime minister [in 1985], when civil war was still here in this country,” he continued, returning to the stability narrative his party favours when touting its legitimacy.
“If there was no Hun Sen”, there would have been no Paris Peace Agreements, and later, no end to the civil war between government troops and the Khmer Rouge, he said, referring to the government’s “win-win” policy that saw mass defections from the communists in the 1990s.
He then took a customary swipe at the UN’s peacekeeping mission in Cambodia that began in 1992.
“UNTAC spent $2 billion, but they were not able to put an end to the civil war. Yasushi Akashi, the head of UNTAC, failed to get into Pailin, but I took control of Pailin and together Khmers joined hands to rebuild the country,” he said.
“If Hun Sen did not go into the tiger’s den, would the tiger have been caught?”
Although land evictions and the wholesale granting of large swathes of territory to private companies in the form of economic land concessions have dogged the government in recent years, most recently in the form of a complaint to the International Criminal Court, the premier also touted his successes in this area.
“All the land belonged to the state in 1985. I led land reforms and handing over land titles to the people,” he said.
But Hun Sen also appeared sensitive to the barrage of criticism that had been directed his way as a result of the anniversary.
Human Rights Watch’s Asia director Brad Adams, a former UN rights worker in Cambodia and a longtime thorn in the heel of the premier, for example, wrote a voluminous report released on Tuesday that detailed “the violence, repression, and corruption that have characterised his rule under successive governments since 1985”.
However, the premier dismissed the criticism.
“If I was a bad leader, would the Japanese government have given the money to build the bridge today?” he asked the crowd.
“Of course, I have made mistakes, it doesn’t mean I have [made] no mistakes, but one has to balance [what has been done] wrong and right . . . you have to talk a bit more properly, not [say] everything is bad, [like] Brad Adams of Human Rights Watch.”
Having been born in the year of the dragon, Hun Sen said he might be “hard-headed”, but, he assured the public, only towards “bad people”.
In Kampong Speu province, opposition leaders also cast an eye over the past three decades of Cambodian politics but focused instead on how one man could have held power for so long, despite five national elections.
Speaking to supporters at a grassroots forum in Borseth district, Cambodia National Rescue Party leader Sam Rainsy said Hun Sen’s divide-and-rule tactics had ensured his political survival, calling on democrats to “merge together” to defeat the CPP.
“For 30 years we have not defeated the Cambodian People’s Party, because we were broken up and there were too many parties, like Funcinpec, the Sam Rainsy Party, the Human Rights Party . . . [that] broke away.”
The merger of the SRP and HRP into the CNRP before last July’s national election – where it won 55 seats – proved unity was the answer, Rainsy continued.
“If we break up, it is difficult to win. For 30 years, we can see that we have not yet won because we have split,” he said.
New political parties, such as the multiple grassroots parties being started by political analyst Kem Ley, and the return of Prince Norodom Ranariddh to the Funcinpec leadership, were CPP-backed plots “to divide the voice of the CNRP”, he added.
“The small parties know they will not win but just come to divide our voice.”
Ley said yesterday, however, that on the contrary to Rainsy’s allegations, he was “actually allied with the CNRP” and was hoping to provide a better model for the opposition with the small parties, which will be “very good and clean”.
“If they consider that our small or micro-parties [that are newly] created can split the CNRP, it seems the CNRP is a fragile party,” he said.