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Tony Kevin: captives, cables and non-coups

Tony Kevin: captives, cables and non-coups

Retiring Australian Ambassador Tony Kevin's term has been an eventful one, beginning

with a hostage crisis and ending with the leaking of a controversial diplomatic cable.

On the eve of his departure, he spoke to Huw Watkin.

Phnom Penh Post: What is your assessment of progress or otherwise in Cambodia

during your time here?

Tony Kevin: I think there has been a lot of progress economically and socially

in the five years since UNTAC. You can see it in the improved living standards, the

better dress, the better access to transport, the greater variety of goods in the

markets. Certainly there is a great deal of poverty here but there is an emerging

middle class and an emerging group of people who take their education very seriously.

It's a very young country - over half of the population is under 18 - and there is

an energy and dynamism that I find very attractive. The rate of political progress

has been slower - I think Cambodian leadership elite still have a long way to go

in terms of really understanding their responsibilities to the civil society of which

they are a part. I think too often here leadership is still regarded as a right and

not the responsibility and duty that it is. And we are all trying to help the leadership

to achieve a better understanding of what it is they are really supposed to be doing.

You've been labeled a Hun Sen supporter and privately you have expressed the opinion

that Hun Sen is a more capable leader than others.

I'm not pro-anybody. There are two things I am here to do. One is to represent

the foreign policy of Australia and the other is to try to advance the well being

of the people of Cambodia... I think that Australian foreign policy has been principled,

it doesn't have any hidden agendas or ulterior motives. We have a concern for Cambodia

as it affects the security of the Southeast Asian region and we have a humanitarian


To come back to your question about Hun Sen, this requires a lengthy answer. Obviously

the embassy and myself personally have followed the politics of Cambodia closely.

Up until about April this year our attention was focused more on the violation of

human and political rights being committed by people on the Hun Sen side of politics

than on the behavior of people on the Ranariddh side of politics. We had a great

deal of sympathy for the difficulties of the Khmer Nation Party that Sam Rainsy was

trying to get off the ground and we had a great deal of sympathy for the problems

in the BLDP and the division that was engineered in that party. We were very concerned

about the killings of newspaper editors and journalists and all that came to a head

with the atrocity of March 30, the grenade attack which we continue to believe was

committed by people who are close to Hun Sen...

But there was another current of events happening late last year which caused us

a great deal of concern and that was the breakdown of the relations between Funcinpec

and the CPP in government and the increasingly clear evidence that Funcinpec had

decided to pursue a policy of building up its military strength and if necessary

entering into a military alliance with the Khmer Rouge.

When one goes back to the UNTAC election, the fact of the matter is that Funcinpec

won that election, but the CPP retained the bulk of the military and police power...

Funcinpec didn't seem to mind and Ranariddh didn't seem to mind what everybody knew

as the CPP having control of the security apparatus. Funcinpec continued to operate

as the senior coalition partner; Ranariddh behaved as the First PM to the extent

that Ranariddh gave full support to Hun Sen when key dissidents in the Funcinpec

party were suppressed - the expulsion of Rainsy and a year later the framing of Sirivudh.

So Ranariddh went along with both of those violations of human and political rights.

It was only early this year that Ranariddh visibly broke with Hun Sen and the formation

of the NUF which brought Ranariddh and Rainsy together was the dramatic expression

of that breach. But even before that there were plenty of indications that... there

was a deepening mistrust between the two PMs and each of them tried to negotiate

deals with separate elements of the Khmer Rouge. All of this was very worrying and

after the March 30 grenade attack, things started building up to a climax. You had

a great deal of arms importation into Phnom Penh, you had the three tons of anti-tank

weapons allegedly brought in by Ranariddh, you had the very assertive attempt to

negotiate between Ranariddh and Khieu Samphan and the KR in Anlong Veng which didn't

even give the appearance of being in the spirit of national reconciliation. You had

an increasing militarization of the top echelons of Funcinpec, Ranariddh increasingly

listening to Serey Kosal, Nhek Bun Chhay and Ho Sok and listening less and less to

the more parliamentary leaders like Loy Sim Cheang, Ung Huot.

You had the emergence of what an academic colleague has described as two rival party

states cohabiting uneasily on the same territory and really getting ready to go to

war with each other. The outbreak of violence when Ranariddh's bodyguards took on

Hok Lundy's bodyguards - we won't try to say who started the fight, but as you know

there was a major exchange of fire up and down Norodom Boulevard... that was the

precursor of what was to come.

And what happened on July 5 and 6 was not a coup d'état by a military oppressor

against a defenseless, unsuspecting rival, not by any accurate reading of history

could it be described in those terms. What happened was predicted, it was a trial

of strength between two sides who had decided to have it out. Now of course, Funcinpec

say we had no choice, we had to defend ourselves because the CPP was starting to

take our weapons and take out our forces and it would have left us defenseless. But

that begs the question what were they doing accumulating weapons for an attack on

a legally constituted state in the first place? There is no defense for what Funcinpec

was preparing to do and that was to take on the state in a military way. Now, that

the fact the fighting was precipitated by the Hun Sen side seizing Funcinpec weapons,

to me does not make this a coup d'état, it makes it a trial of strength in

a uniquely unstable situation where the relationship between the two sides of government

had broken down irretrievably and they were both preparing to have a trial of strength.

But there is the argument that Funcinpec had their backs against the wall, that

they had no option but to militarize in the period before the election because they

believed they would have to defend their anticipated election victory on the basis

of a history of intransigence from the CPP when it came to sharing power?

That's not a logical position because for the first two years of the coalition

government, Funcinpec found that situation acceptable.

So what changed? Why did Ranariddh, as you say, become more inclined to a military


I think it was a failure of leadership. I think as the election approached Ranariddh

realised that Funcinpec was not well prepared and that the party had not realised

its full potential... I don't think that Ranariddh expected he would win an election

in 1998. I think he was looking for other ways to protect Funcinpec's power.

He told you that?

No [but] there were indicators. For example Funcinpec was notably uninterested

and not serious about preparations for the election, they were not interested.

And that was not reflected by the attitudes of CPP officials?

No. CPP administrators and in particular Sar Kheng took the election preparations

very seriously indeed and they approached the task in a conscientious and interested


And your opinion on that has caused you some grief, in particular the cable you

sent to Canberra saying Hun Sen was a "democrat at heart" was leaked to

the Australian press. You say that quote was taken out of context, but what was the


I'm not going to tell you the contents of that cable, but I'll tell you what my

position was after the events of July 5-6. I came to a position in which I believed

there had been a trial of strength which had produced a very clear outcome in Cambodia

and that the military elements of Funcinpec had been thoroughly routed. The view

I took was that it was necessary to accept this as a fact and move on - to say what

is the government of Cambodia now going to look like and how can it best be influenced

in the direction of democracy and human rights and economic development? And what

purpose would be served by entering into an involvement with the people who lost

this engagement? I came to the conclusion that there was nothing to be gained by

the people of Cambodia by supporting the people who had fled Cambodia.

And this explains your personal disappointment with the US role in the UN Credentials

Committee decision to leave Cambodia's seat at the UN vacant?

I'm expressing my personal views as a person who is about to retire.... Speaking

personally, yes I was disappointed at a situation where the King had given a very

clear imprimatur for Hun Sen and Ung Huot to represent Cambodia at the United Nations.

There was no reason for that committee not to accept those credentials.

Other than the United Nations spending a lot of money here on a process which

resulted in Ranariddh being elected as First Prime Minister and who is now in exile?

To accept Hun Sen and Ung Huot could be interpreted as saying that the whole expensive

process has failed?

Certainly it was a disappointment and I had hoped that the fighting could have

been avoided... but that was not to be. If you take as the basic proposition my earlier

analysis of events, I don't see any difficulty with the situation where Ranariddh

is not recognised by the UN.

But where does that leave Cambodia in terms of that process. In terms of ideas

like pluralism, human and political rights, has anything been achieved within Cambodia's


A lot has been achieved. I think Hun Sen is making the right noises in terms of

his reaction to the UN's human rights report... and we don't make light of those

human rights atrocities. Hun Sen has responded in a helpful way... In the parliamentary

sense efforts are being made to observe the proper procedures - the failure to get

proposed changes to the leadership, government leaders took that failure in a very

measured way which was encouraging. I hear reports of a greater sense of purpose

and activity in government departments. The eight-point security plan announced in

Sihanoukville contains some well overdue improvements, which could not have been

achieved under the former coalition government...development projects [were] stalled

because of disagreement between the parties, government departments were greatly

handicapped by the constant jockeying for position between the two sides. There's

a lot more being done [now] in terms of internal government. The paradox is that

externally things are getting worse and worse, Cambodia seems to be moving towards

the status of a pariah state and when I think of what happened to Cuba under an unrelenting

and unforgiving US [position] towards Cuba which has put that country in quarantine

for so many years, it worries me that an incorrect reading of what happened here

might put Cambodia into a similar situation.

What about the whole peace process and in particular the UN sponsored elections.

Do you think the ideals and objectives were a little lofty and that the money spent

could have been better targeted with a proper understanding of the social and political

process here?

It was ambitious but it ended a chronic war... it created an outcome which the

two major neighbors of Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam, accepted and that stopped

Cambodia from being the proxy battleground on which these two countries had been

fighting. For the first time Cambodia had a chance to govern itself according to

its Constitution with its own political parties in peace. That peace was threatened

by the Khmer Rouge, but that insurgency is now marginal. So an enormous amount has

been achieved... the only thing that is threatening to upset that is continued support

given to an external resistance that should just fade away.

So you're hopeful about the future for Cambodia, despite the political developments

of recent months?

Yes I'm hopeful, but I'm worried about the international environment. I'm worried

that international condemnation could discourage people here and could delay political

recovery. But I think there are people in Funcinpec who are making a genuine effort

to reconstitute the party, I think it's important that the King is back and I think

as he stays here longer he will take more interest in the affairs of Funcinpec because

I think they need encouragement and they need to know what they are doing is legitimate.

Part of the problem with this continuing activity by Funcinpec outside the country

is that it tends to de-legitimise the work of Funcinpec politicians inside Cambodia.

It's paradoxical because if we want multi-party democracy developed in Cambodia,

surely it's in our interest to encourage the Funcinpec people working here.

Coming back to the human rights issue, yourself and the American ambassador copped

a lot of flak, the allegation being that you encouraged people to be active in politics

and human rights, but when the going got tough you abandoned them?

I don't think it's at all fair because none of those people were involved in the

armed insurrection...[and] none of them are at risk now. People like Kek Galabru,

Kassie Neou and Lao Mong Hay, they are all here working. The Cambodian press is still

publishing and is still outspoken. I think that people who take that position are

basically arguing from a politically motivated point of view, I guess they want to

justify having left the country, they want to justify having not returned. I happen

to believe that most of the people who are still outside the country could still

come back here and engage in political activity and I wish they would.

What about Ho Sok. It is said that he sought sanctuary through Australian diplomatic

channels before he was captured and executed?

There is no truth whatsoever in that assertion.

He made no approaches whatsoever to any Australian diplomat?

Ho Sok did not approach Australian Embassy staff, no other person approached embassy

staff on behalf of Ho Sok. Categorically. There are people with an Australian connection,

and people who we had talked with in terms of human rights. We made certain line

calls about the people we would help and those judgements were made in accordance

to the instructions we had from Canberra. We were never approached by or on behalf

of Ho Sok.

As I recall you came into Cambodia at a very difficult time just after the hostage

crisis of 1995?

The crisis began three days after I arrived... I'll never forget, my deputy came

into my office and said: 'We've had a report of three foreigners taken from a train

in Kampot, one may be an Australian and if this is true you can kiss your posting

goodbye, it's ruined'. I couldn't quite understand the extent of his apprehension

and despair, but after three or four months I understood exactly what he meant. These

things are incredibly harrowing. We devoted all our embassy resources to trying to

bring back David Wilson alive, nothing else mattered. We pressed every button, we

pulled every lever, we used every form of negotiating asset we had to try and achieve

a good result. But in the end it was too much for us.

Was it a case that there was a lack of an appreciation of the difficulties you

were up against?

I think what it proved to us was that this two-headed government, while it appeared

to be working quite well on the surface, when it was faced with a real crisis of

this magnitude, the divisions and problems were too much. It exposed some real problems

in the administration which I don't want to go into here because that's all we will

talk about.

Has it had an impact on your career?

I think my whole posting in Cambodia has had a very dramatic effect on my career

because Cambodia is the sort of country which puts you in situations where you are

forced to think about the morality of what you are doing. It's not the sort of thing

where you can be a 'business as usual diplomat'. What I mean is that a posting in

Cambodia forces you to examine the fundamentals of what you are doing and to look

at what you are doing in a moral way because the suffering here is so great and the

sense of responsibility is so great that one cannot just shrug one's shoulders and

say 'Oh well, its a strange country, they do things differently here' and then go

off and play golf. It tends to suck you in and it has been such an intense experience

that I find it difficult to contemplate going back to the normal round of diplomatic

postings after this. It seems like a good point to retire.

(- Ambassador Kevin, on his return to Australia, intends to write a book about

Cambodian politics over the past four years.)


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