Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Cambodia: Hun Sen ponders his political legacy

Prime Miniser Hun Sen could be very passionate and nostalgic. During the opening speech last week in Phnom Pen during the two-day Asialink Conversation on Cambodia conference (hosted by University of Melbourne and Cambodia's Development and Research Institute), the region's longest reign leader gave rare and impromptu comments on his role during the peace process in Cambodia nearly two decades ago.

Just sitting behind him at the podium was former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans, who worked closely with him during the 1990's to secure peace in his country.
Hun Sen recalled those days with candors much to the delight of Evans and diplomatic corps and younger audience. During the visit to Svay Rieng, he recounted, one of the peace Australian delegates, Michael Costello, who was too tall for a Cambodian bed size. So, a special bed was prepared for him. The prime minister mentioned and praised Evans four times off the cuff staying away from the prepared speech for his tireless efforts in bringing all protagonists in forging the difficult peace agreement As never before seen, Hun Sen was very reflective, wanting to leave a lasting legacy of his governance and contribution to Cambodia.

At the moment, the once war-torn country has become one of the region's most dynamic economies with gross domestic annual product rising since 1993 from US$2.4 billion to US$10.3 billion in 2008. That was amazing figures for a country that used to struggle for a daily survival. He pointed out that poverty rate has decreased by 50 per cent in 1993 to 30 per cent in 2007 then to 27.4 per cent last year. Impressive statistic in the same period also includes the three-fold increase income per capital from US$229 to US$739. Again, Cambodia is the only least developing country that is a member of the World Trade Organization (October 2004).

In his vision, he is seeing Cambodia as a major hub of regional development and stability. His triangular strategy of strengthening peace and security, integrating Cambodia into the regional and global community together with economic and social reforms has been well received from economists and international organizations. With Cambodian's participation in various regional cooperation schemes, the country is poised to attract major investments from aboard.

In addition to rich mineral and energy resources, Cambodia also has a unique geo-strategic location overseeing one of the busiest sea-lane of communications in the South China Sea. The country has been pursued multi-pronged foreign policy in engaging all great powers including China, the US and Russia. Phnom Penh also has adopted a high profile on issues related to international peace and security
For the time being, China has the strongest foothold in Cambodia. After decades of animosity during the Cambodian conflict, China has become the country's biggest development partner, both civilian and military areas, delivering all-around assistance programs for the country and its 14 million people. Hun Sen was quite open about the role of China, which he repeatedly said that China has a special habit of speaking less but do a lot. He stressed that he could work with the Chinese leaders as China offered more assistance without conditions.

Thousands of Chinese companies have invested and contributed to Cambodia's rapid economic growth in the past five years. China's investment jumped two folds from US$461 million in 2007 to US$930 million in 2009. In the first quarter of this year alone, it reached US$234 million. Bilateral trade over a decade increased seven-fold from US$138 million in 1998 to US$946 million in 2008.

To balance China's growing influence, Cambodia has also intensified cooperation with the US, which celebrates the 60 th anniversary of diplomatic relations this year. While Washington continues to criticize Phnom Penh's dismal human rights and impunity records, it has not stopped the full-swing normalization process with Cambodia and its armed forces. The recent Cambodian-US joint training and exercise in peacekeeping operation was a good case in point. It is part of broader of military to military relations that also includes counter-terrorism, defense reform, demining and civil-military operation.

Projecting his international image, Hun Sen has highlighted his country's contribution to international peacekeeping and security. The time has come, he pointed out that Cambodia has to give back to the global community for helping the country to progress and achieve peace. He said that Cambodian troops have been successfully deployed as peacekeepers in Sudan, Chad and the Central African Republic and Chad. Soon, they would also go to Lebanon for the third time.

Phnom Penh based diplomats saw eyes to eyes that Hun Sen has consolidated his leadership and power. "He oversees Cambodia's most prosperous time," observed one diplomat, "he wants to leave a good legacy for future generations. He wants to be Cambodia's LKY (Lee Kuan Yew)." However, some diplomats pointed out his elder son, Hun Manet (32), a graduate of US Military Academy at West Point, is being gloomed to become a political leader to fill his father's shoe. During the Asialink conversation on Cambodia, Hun Manet participated actively in the discussion on the security issues in the region, which he showed a good understanding of issues related regional security. Manet thought Asean could do more to help UN peacekeeping operations. Recently, he led the Cambodian delegation to the Shangrila Dialogue in Singapore.

With its unique political standing, Cambodia often serves as a tipping point of any Asean endeavor�for good or for worse. After all, Cambodia is the freest country among the new members joining Asean after 1995 (Vietnam, Laos and Burma). Cambodian media is indeed freer than the majority of Asean members. Media-related associations are mushrooming reflecting dynamic media environment in the country. The government still needs to open up more space for freedom of expression and show restraint in using defamation laws against journalists.

At its choosing, Cambodia can be either pushing or pulling factor between core and new Asean members, depending on issues involved. Last year Phnom Penh's strong objection derailed theThai proposal appealing for Aung San Suu Kyi's pardon. During the recent Asean ministerial meeting in Hanoi, its last minute change of heart hampered the progress of Singapore's proposal of Asean plus eight. These were a true vintage Hun Sen's style of diplomatic finesse.

Admittingly, Hun Sen is the most versatile Asean leader who knows the organization by the tee. No other leaders have invoked the Asean charter and principles as frequent as the Cambodian leader, who is not afraid to speak out or criticize the grouping. Its Asean membership was delayed for two years due to the domestic political crisis when it was admitted in 1999.

Now Cambodia is looking forward to the Asean chair in 2012 immediately after Indonesia's turn next year. Phnom Penh has given a top priority to this event as the next general election is scheduled in 2013, which Hun Sen wants to use the poll as a showcase of his leadership and legacy. By Kavi Chongkittavorn The Nation, Bangkok

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