Prime Minister Hun Sen said that Cambodia’s current era of development has its foundations in the risks he undertook in the 1980s when he put in place political and economic reforms.

Speaking at the launch of the 2023-2027 fourth and final phase of the Public Financial Management Reform Programme (PFMRP) on March 20, Hun Sen recalled that in the period right after the Khmer Rouge were ousted from power, he decided not to wait for the country to achieve comprehensive peace before starting reforms.

“My head was also used in exchange for a reform when I started to take on the office of Prime Minister.

“I risked putting my head on the chopping block when I began the reforms after I took office. My life at that moment was in danger and the situation was fragile because as soon as I became prime minister, I laid out two big reforms at the same time.

“The first reform was political. That was to find solutions to Cambodian political issues through negotiations. That reform was life-threatening for me. And the second reform was that of the economy,” he said at the event, which was attended by a number of foreign diplomats.

Hun Sen said that at the time, Cambodians had been so busy fighting for so long they no longer knew how to solve political problems through negotiations, and he thanked France for providing an avenue for him to have two political dialogues with then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk, which led to the Paris Peace Agreements on October 23, 1991.

Regarding economic reforms, the premier said Cambodia started with land reforms that were not easy to sort out due to the fact that the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, had abolished all private property and records of private property to turn it into state property.

“Following the fall of the Khmer Rouge, we had no choice but to do whatever we could to save our people. Some families had just a pair of oxen left. We did whatever we had to in order to survive. Now you see the roads in Phnom Penh are jammed, but 45 years ago this was an empty city. So back then we had to push for re-privatisation,” he said.

He recalled that after the civil war, there were very few people who understood anything about market economies and some people had received education in then-North Vietnam and returned to Cambodia after 1965, only to bring with them communist ideas about collectivisation and equal distribution.

Hun Sen said there were three big points of pressure bearing down on him at the time. The first problem, he said, was his own level of knowledge and education because he initially lacked an understanding of the reforms he would eventually institute, including the value of negotiations or the benefits of private ownership.

“That was because, in our group, we only ever talked about fighting and politics and they hated even talking about the economy and private ownership,” he said.

He noted that he made high level personnel changes early on as prime minister, replacing the defence minister and the foreign affairs minister because back then neither of them were in favour of negotiations.

Hun Sen noted that for a period while he was prime minister, he also held the job of foreign minister – while at the same time he transferred Tea Banh from the public works ministry to the ministry of national defence – in order to pave the way for negotiations.

“So, internally, this was very dangerous. It was not a simple story. That was the first pressure on me,” he said.

The second pressure, he said, was the presence of more than 100,000 Vietnamese soldiers in Cambodia, because at the time that Cambodia began its reforms, Vietnam was still focused on implementing collectivism.

“But I can say I was lucky, because Vietnam helped us topple the Pol Pot regime and they prevented the return of that regime, while allowing us to make decisions about our own affairs related to socio-economic policy,” he said.

The third pressure, he said, was the embargo placed on Cambodia by foreign countries. The embargo was mostly due to Vietnam’s military presence in Cambodia as there were still tensions between the US and Vietnam in the wake of the war they had fought.

“At that time, only the Soviet Union [USSR] and the socialist countries in Eastern Europe, a group called COMECON, provided assistance, along with assistance from India,” he said, referring to the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance, a multinational economic organisation that existed in the Eastern Bloc of communist countries dominated by the USSR from 1949 to 1991.

Yang Peou, secretary-general of the Royal Academy of Cambodia, said that on the way to achieving peace, there were confrontations between people in Cambodia and with foreign countries including Vietnam and with Cambodian politicians living abroad.

He recalled that when Cambodia finally rid itself of the Khmer Rouge regime, the country was left in a weakened state and early on it was still implementing a planned economy without a free market, partly due to the influence of Vietnam.

“At that time, Hun Sen faced challenges to his political reforms that eventually led to negotiations and peace, because, internally, not everyone understood or agreed with him and everything was taking place under the watchful eye of Vietnam. This was a really challenging time for him,” he said.

Peou said some of the challenges at that time were also due to the Cold War between the US and USSR, which had a deep impact on much of the world, not just Cambodia.