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Tony Kevin: the Aussie with attitude

Tony Kevin: the Aussie with attitude

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Tony Kevin: "I've been accused of being a propagandist for Prime Minister Hun Sen, and as lacking the ability to be objective about Cambodia. I totally reject these allegations."

The former Australian Ambassador to Cambodia (1994-97),Tony Kevin, has been back

in town and gave the Post this exclusive interview. Beth Moorthy talked to

Kevin - now a research fellow at the Australian National University - about Cambodia's

past, present and future, and his own entanglement in Cambodian political debate.

A JOVIAL man with 30 years' diplomatic experience, Tony Kevin is full of praise for

the current coalition government and has hopes for a stable Cambodian future.

In town to deliver a speech on the current political situation in Cambodia at the

Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, Kevin's political opinions generated

controversy during and after his ambassadorship. He also viewed his lecture as "an

opportunity to ... set the record straight regarding my own involvement in public

debate".

He explains: "I've been accused of being a propagandist for Prime Minister Hun

Sen, and as lacking the ability to be objective about Cambodia. I totally reject

these allegations."

The July 22 lecture's main point was that Cambodia needs to move away from what he

calls "fundamentalist" politics, from politicians who are unwilling to

cooperate with each other and see opponents as enemies.

Kevin does not spare the international community, arguing that foreign involvement

has tended to polarize Cambodian politics even more, instead of advocating a search

for common ground, and that he has been unfairly labeled a CPP propagandist.

In Kevin's analysis, the instability following last year's elections - when Funcinpec

and the Sam Rainsy Party protested irregularities and refused to recognize the victory

of Hun Sen's CPP, culminating in massive street protests calling for Hun Sen's ouster

- was the result of such a loss of common ground. He calls it "the manifestation

of an abnormal politics, a politics out of control".

He commended Funcinpec's decision to finally break away from the strident SRP and

join the coalition with the CPP in November 1998 as "wise and statesmanlike".

Kevin believes that since the parties have been able to put their differences - the

September demonstrations, the fighting in the streets of Phnom Penh in July 1997

- behind them, the international community should too.

"The fact that Funcinpec decided to go into the government indicates that Funcinpec

and CPP both agreed to put the past behind them, there's no interest in old arguments

... [they're] not of current political interest."

Cambodia has been judged too harshly by foreigners, he feels, and it is now time

to leave the government, which has chosen to work together, to get on with its tasks

of national development.

Kevin blasted the tactics of opposition leader Sam Rainsy and his international allies

as detracting from an ability to achieve peace and stability in Cambodia.

The international community, he says, has misjudged - even vilified - Hun Sen and

the CPP, and has been too heavily swayed in such judgments by Rainsy, whose persuasive

powers Kevin once described as "Svengali-like".

"I think during the period of Cambodia's political crisis [from the fighting

of July 97 to the formation of the coalition in Nov 98], his politics were not helpful,"

Kevin said. "A highly negative image of Cambodia was created and sustained during

that period."

He continues: "Sam Rainsy has managed to project himself internationally as

a democratic activist, and has managed to project Hun Sen (until last year's settlement)

as authoritarian. The cultivation of a mindset, especially in Washington, was Mr

Rainsy's greatest strength, but it has become much more difficult to sustain ...

it will become increasingly difficult as Cambodia progresses."

Kevin got involved first hand with politics Rainsy-style and the SRP's influence

in Washington when he was nominated for the position of World Bank Representative

in Cambodia in April.

Rainsy fired off a letter to the bank, trashing Kevin as too biased to represent

a theoretically neutral institution.

"Because of his political commitment to the ruling CPP, Mr Kevin cannot be trusted

to be impartial," the SRP wrote.

The bank job went to another person, and Kevin will not comment on whether he was

actually offered the position or not - or whether Rainsy's advocacy helped scuttle

his bid.

"I spoke out, I appeared to have angered him by doing so, also angered some

of his supporters in Washington. I don't feel any regrets for that," he says

slowly. "I don't feel any sour grapes against Mr Rainsy; he used to be my friend.

I hope that in the future we will be friends again."

Kevin believes the CPP has shown itself to be less "fundamentalist" and

more politically mature than the SRP, "as shown by [CPP's] actions since July

97". He includes the CPP's acceptance of the Japanese peace plan leading to

the return of Funcinpec leader Prince Norodom Ranariddh and its willingness to form

a coalition with either or both other parties as signs of CPP's flexibility.

Asked if the more than 80 deaths and disappearances in the wake of the July 97 fighting

- most of which were top Funcinpec officials, allegedly hunted down and killed by

the victorious CPP with total impunity - weren't indications of "fundamentalist

politics", Kevin said:

"In a healthy politics those things are remembered ... [but] the determination

of one side, or one small faction, to politicize it ... makes it difficult for appropriate

acts of national mourning.

"Former enemies have to find common ground before they can mourn together, and

this society as a whole still has not achieved that common ground ... in that context,

the achievement of Funcinpec and CPP of coming together [gives me] great admiration

for leaders on both sides."

Of the leaked 1997 cable through which Kevin gained notoriety for reportedly calling

Hun Sen a "democrat at heart", which surfaced at a time when international

opinion condemned him as a coup leader, he said: "I have never in my life written

down those words; they've been picked up as folklore."

But he added: "I do have admiration for Hun Sen, I think he's a brave and intelligent

leader ... he showed enormous courage and steadfastness to sustain a normal government

under those sorts of [international] pressures ... but I don't want to put labels

on him."

Kevin says he now feels vindicated in his support.

"I was pretty much alone, as a foreign commentator on Cambodian politics, taking

the position I took then ... I think now we're finally seeing an international commentary

on this man [which is] a more balanced appreciation."

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