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Ung Huot - an unplanned rise to fame

Ung Huot - an unplanned rise to fame

Foreign Minister Ung Huot talks to Ker Munthit about his past and future

plans

CAMBODIAN politics has taken its toll on Ung Huot. At 50 years of

age, the former Minister of Education and now Foreign Minister admits growing a

little grayer since his return to Cambodia a few years ago.

"People who

know me say 'you grow old because you think too much, you have too much work',"

he jokes.

Regardless of age and appearance, Ung Huot is earning himself

increasing prominence, and plaudits.

His workload is unlikely to ease

off. Taking over the Foreign Minister's chair under controversial circumstances

- replacing Prince Norodom Sorivudh, who quit - he finds himself at the helm of

Cambodia's bid to improve it's international relations.

Ung Huot never

planned to be a politician [he trained as an economist], and says he went into

it out of a desire to play a part in the achievement of peace in

Cambodia.

"I never dreamed of anything, [only] that one day there will be

peace in Cambodia."

An Australian citizen, Huot has spent much of his

adult life there before his return to Cambodia.

After completing a

bachelor's degree in commerce in Phnom Penh, he received a Colombo Plan

scholarship to study in Australia in 1971. He counts himself lucky not to have

returned immediately to Cambodia after completing a master's degree in business

administration at Melbourne University.

Four close friends, also students

in Australia, returned to Cambodia in 1975, as the Khmer Rouge took over the

country.

All four - whose university education put them among the

"intellectual" class hated by the KR - were later killed in the infamous S21, or

Toul Sleng, detention and torture center in Phnom Penh.

Huot had decided

to stay a little longer overseas, a move he says saved his

life.

"Otherwise I would have been what Cambodians used to call

'fertilizer', like many students who returned.

"This kind of thing we

don't want to see happening again," he says. "This part of the history doesn't

help us very much now in the task of rebuilding this nation, because most of our

intellectuals were killed."

Living in Victory, Australia, the seeds of

his future interest in politics were planted by his involvement in helping

refugees who escaped Pol Pot's rule to go to Australia.

In 1981, after

the KR government's eviction, he began his alliance with the royalist Funcinpec

party, becoming its Australia and Asia president. He also worked as an

information officer involved in arranging humanitarian assistance for Khmer

refugees along the Thai border.

He returned to Cambodia after the 1991

Paris Peace Accords offered the hope of peace in Cambodia.

During the

United Nations-sponsored general elections. he served as the party's campaign

director in Phnom Penh.

Memories of that time do not sit easily in his

mind. He says he does not want to talk about the "dirty and dangerous" election

period, but refers to having to lock himself up in the party's compound - when

he would have rather gone to a restaurant for a meal - at times.

"Looking

back, I sometimes feel very sad. Sometimes I feel why the hell should I come and

be involved in that kind of mess."

He counts King Norodom Sihanouk,

however, as the "catalyst" who allowed Cambodia to start down the road of

democracy and peace.

He believes the Royal coalition government borne out

of the elections, against the odds and beyond all predictions, has been

functioning well.

He acknowledges it was an uneasy "marriage" - one of

convenience - which King Sihanouk proposed for Prince Norodom Ranariddh and Hun

Sen as co-Prime Ministers.

Many people had expected that Funcinpec, as

the winner of the most votes, would run the country.

But he says that

without the coalition government, the country could have gone back to even

greater division and war.

He urged the Cambodian people to be patient for

results.

"The speed of light is 360,000km per second but the speed of the

wishes of the people is 700,000km per second," he says.

"They want everything overnight.

"They have to think deeper about the

other alternative rather than more violence, more killing, than there is

now."

He was first appointed Minister of Education in the government,

where he earned a name for fighting injustice, inequality and

corruption.

He says that most of the credit for improving the education

system, one of the keys to solving the country's problems, must go to the

teachers themselves.

But he acknowledges the praise he received during

his education tenure, saying: "They [teachers] said what I did was to cure the

disease without doing surgery."

Huot, who considers himself a fast

learner, says his new Foreign Minister's position is causing him "fewer

headaches" than his previous ministerial role.

After three months in the

job, he cites Cambodia's proposed joining of the Association of South-East Asian

Nations as his most important task. The other, he said, was to ensure friendly

relations with other countries.

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