Hun Sen’s Cambodia
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To many in the West, the name Cambodia still conjures up indelible images of destruction and death, the legacy of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime and the terror it inflicted in its attempt to create a communist utopia in the 1970s. Sebastian Strangio, a journalist based in the capital city of Phnom Penh, now offers an eye-opening appraisal of modern-day Cambodia in the years following its emergence from bitter conflict and bloody upheaval.
In the early 1990s, Cambodia became the focus of the UN’s first great post–Cold War nation-building project, with billions in international aid rolling in to support the fledgling democracy. But since the UN-supervised elections in 1993, the nation has slipped steadily backward into neo-authoritarian rule under Prime Minister Hun Sen. Behind a mirage of democracy, ordinary people have few rights and corruption infuses virtually every facet of everyday life. In this lively and compelling study, the first of its kind, Strangio explores the present state of Cambodian society under Hun Sen’s leadership, painting a vivid portrait of a nation struggling to reconcile the promise of peace and democracy with a violent and tumultuous past.
Thanks partly to US efforts, the charge of defamation still didn’t carry jail terms, but it did carry fines of up to 10 million riels ($2,500), which would transmute into jail-time for those lacking the money to pay. But forget defamation—critics could be charged with insult; offense against state authorities; intimidation of a public official; malicious denunciation; breach of professional secrecy; threats; threats to cause damage; taking advantage of a vulnerable person; and instigation. Then
with the granting of economic land concessions to big business—one of the main issues the TWG sought to address. For all their plans and recommendations, the TWGs were “technical” bodies that did little to address the issue of political incentives. “Nobody believed in them,” the consultant told me. “After a while nobody high-ranking attended those meetings.” Soon enough the CG/CDCF summits had devolved into a ritual of scripted hypocrisy. From the donors there were diplomatic complaints about
perhaps always inevitable that the Khmer Rouge tribunal would fail to reconcile the irreconcilable, to map the visionary abstractions of international law onto the messy realities of contemporary Cambodia. And so the legacy of Nuremberg, implanted on the banks of the Mekong, produced another mirage—perhaps the most distorting, disorienting mirage of all. EPILOGUE A Cambodian Spring? On July 28, 2013, the people of Cambodia went to the polls and voiced their desire for change. Almost no one saw
received a letter from the Cambodian parliament. To help repair the damage caused by the fighting, it read, “We appeal to you to give us humanitarian assistance, either financial or material.” The smoke had barely cleared on a city looted and destroyed by Hun Sen’s troops. Now he was asking for help to pay for the damage. Diplomats were astounded. One European envoy described the demand as “insulting.”77 Foreign investment nosedived. Some governments suspended aid. Cambodia’s seat at the UN was
significance. There was plenty of emotion near the veal mean, but no calls for freedom or justice—only a shared immersion in the rhythms of Buddhist ritual and a nostalgia for the remembered, or misremembered, “golden age” that had preceded the storm of civil war and revolutionary violence. Each night of the funeral, thousands of mourners crowded outside the blazing entrance of the veal mean. Sidewalk vendors, industrious as ever, hawked commemorative photos tracing Sihanouk’s long career, from