Book Review: Strongman

Hun Sen smokes 40 State Express cigarettes a day - a World War II kind of fag - although he is trying to cut back, loves longan fruit, enjoys feeding the pelicans at his private lake at Takhmau, earns US$1,150 a month, though the state covers all his expenses, and prefers his food cooked by his loyal wife Mde Bun Rany.

His favorite dish is green pineapple and cucumber and dry and sour fish. He drinks two cups of coffee daily, and in the evening likes to relax over two pegs of Hennessey brandy topped up with Coca-Cola.

He takes a 15 minute nap to relieve the stress on his false left eye, lost in combat on the last but one day before the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge - for whom Mr Sen was fighting in 1975. There's only one extant picture of the prime minister with his two real eyes, taken by a farmer who presented it to Hun Sen.

I know all this because the second edition of Hun Sen's biography, 'Strongman: the Extraordinary Life of Hun Sen,' is full of such gossipy minutiae.

From my own knowledge as a correspondent off and on in Cambodia, I know that the 60-year-old Cambodian prime minister has held power since Ronald Reagan was in the White House. A former Khmer Rouge soldier who changed allegiances, Hun Sen said he is not stepping down until he is 90 - and he doesn't seem to be kidding.

I know that he first became prime minister of a one-party state in 1985, and has been in power most of the time since. He has been premier for 28 years and so he is one of the longest serving autocrats around (there are a couple of older strongmen in the 'Stans).

Diplomats say that the formerly pro-Vietnamese prime minister, who came to power after he joined a Vietnamese invasion force in 1979, is nowadays in the pocket of China, those who supported the faction of the Khmer Rouge headed by the late Pol Pot.

To this correspondent, the former communist Hun Sen, who took to democracy without enthusiasm, probably enjoys equally good relations with Hanoi and Beijing, though the latter hold the moneybags.

Somehow, during the long years of power, Hun Sen has always managed to manipulate himself to come out ahead of the game. In the last few years, he has even presided over a modest economic growth and stability in a land of desperate poverty, long after the four years of the Khmer Rouge's brutal rule between 1975 and 1979.

I first came to post-war Cambodia in mid-1979, having earlier covered the Lon Nol civil war after Sihanouk's overthrow, and saw Cambodians kneeling on the ground on Phnom Penh's wrecked streets and picking up individual grains of rice, with Vietnamese boi doi (soldiers) driving motorized artillery through town - I hastened to photograph the guns.

I know that, from my own observations, Hun Sen received a terrible jolt when King Norodom Sihanouk, the father of the present King Sihamoni, died on 15th October, 2012. Until that moment, Hun Sen thought he was the one beloved by the people of Cambodia,

But suddenly the streets were full of hundreds of thousands of ordinary Cambodians, from young children to aged crones, and they were all lighting incense and weeping for the late King Sihanouk, the man who presided over a Golden Age, and who won independence from France without having to fight a terrible war, as the Vietnamese communists had to do against the French and then the Americans, who should have known better.

During the cremation, Hun Sen had one of his moments for going somewhat over the top, saying the delay in cremating the former's king's body was because the late king's spirit was waiting for the prime minister to personally light the casket which, incidentally, I could see in the atrium there from where I stood.

"This is a miracle of the late King Father's secret power: an impossible thing occurred at the time," Sen said. Now he had to inherit the task of protecting the monarchy, he added.

This was a Kim Jong-il moment, something from the weird propaganda fairy tales of the Democratic People's Republic. There was another one when Hun Sen's family members saw lights flying out of a chrey tree that had stood for hundreds of years. The Mehtas write: "the light from the tree, being only about 70 meters away, bathed their home in silvery bursts at the time when Bun Rany gave birth to Manet." Shades of the nuttiness in Pyongyang.

Manet is Hun Sen's eldest son, a graduate of West Point, and seemingly a stable, intelligent man who might well be Hun Sen's heir, and who could do a respectable job if what we hear is true. When he graduated, the proud father went to West Point to be with Hun Manet.

The book is indeed filled with often fascinating detail, and is not a total whitewash either. Sometimes, the Mehtas, husband and wife, have a clear vision. "Some critics argued," they wrote, "that without the moderating presence of Sihanouk, Hun Sen and the other CPP leaders would function without restraint....." How likely to be true!

At other times, the whitewash brush is out as the Mehtas go overboard. Through Cambodia's civil wars, a UN peace process, and several elections, the prime minister has always managed to come out top of the heap. In a country plagued by poverty, he brought in recent years some economic growth and stability.

Still, we have also seen a land-grabbing frenzy, human rights abuses, 99 year leases of state land, and the doings of an insatiably greedy ruling elite. The Mehtas have little to say about these lamentable issues.

People like the royalist Prince Norodom Ranariddh, once an honorable leader who could stand up to Hun Sen, have fallen by the wayside. The Mehtas previously wrote a second book, this time about Ranariddh, and they called it 'Warrior Prince.' One very much doubts that this book will be resurrected as 'Strongman' is being at present. Ranariddh is a much reduced figure.

Human Rights Watch said last year that, instead of prosecuting officials responsible for killings and other serious abuses, ?Prime Minister Hun Sen has promoted and rewarded them."

Yet Hun Sen has always been 100% a Cambodian, and he speaks in a blunt, straightforward way that often appeals to Khmers. As the Mehtas write: "Hun Sen's earthy outspokenness resonated powerfully with common Cambodians."

Others would say that the prime minister needs to be less ruthless, and commit to human rights.

Still, the Mehtas are right when they say that Hun Sen and his ruling party colleagues have ended the domination of those who have been educated in France or in French, from King Sihanouk to Pol Pot and the Francophile others.

Nowadays, the days of French are over. Even Hun Sen claims to speak some English (and Vietnamese) though he says he is 'not a puppet.'

As to the 2013 edition of 'Strongman,' and how it compared with the original edition in 1999, at least the first half of the new book is lifted direct from the earlier tome, but would be of interest - though sometimes a bit turgid - to those who had not read the original. And the interviews and insights regarding Hun Sen's and possible heir, Hun Manet, and Hun Sen's brother, the mysterious Hun Neng, governor of Kompong Cham, are interesting and new and worth reading.

But the period from 1990 until 2013, i.e. 23 years, is covered in one chapter, 'An Eventual Validation.' The story ends up to the moment with the cremations of King Sihanouk and Khmer Rouge Brother Number Three Ieng Sary. It is all covered in just 12 and a half pages.

Still, so little is really known about Hun Sen, who almost never gives interviews, that those who have not read the original edition may want to have the current volume on their bookshelves. Those who try to ask Mr Hun Sen an innocent question, as I did during King Sihanouk's cremation - 'What was King Sihanouk's greatest contribution...." are usually met, as mine was, with an angry expostulation. Yet, years ago, Hun Sen travelled around Cambodia with the press in tow, with a bottle of White Horse whisky always on the table at dinnertime in Kampot province or elsewhere.

The current volume concludes: "By 2013, Hun Sen had been in power for 28 years. His promise that he would remain in politics till the age of ninety, remains in the public record. His good health and excellent performance in the general elections of 2008 have positioned him to contest at least four more national elections," the Mehtas point out.

But Khieu Kanharith, minister of information, has been brought in to remind everyone. "This is Cambodia. Anything can happen here." Well, that's certainly true.