WITH the brazen military takeover on July 5, Second Prime Minister Hun Sen, leader of the Cambodian People's Party (CPP), has emerged overnight as Southeast Asia's new strongman. He is the latest in a succession of authoritarian figures to emerge in Cambodia since the 1960s when the autocratic Prince Norodom Sihanouk was the chief of state.
Hun Sen's carefully planned move to wrest power has again taken his country to the brink of civil war as the armies of the royalist Funcinpec and CPP, the two partners in a shaky coalition, clashed. The three days of fighting left at least 16 dead and sparked a massive emergency evacuation of the hundreds of foreigners living in the embattled capital Phnom Penh.
The violence broke out just when Cambodia seemed on the verge of settling into democracy. A new power equation has taken shape in Phnom Penh with Hun Sen's ominous moves and the decline of the Funcinpec, founded by the Nero-like Prince Sihanouk (now king) and led by his son, Prince Ranariddh. In the ensuing turmoil, Pol Pot, leader of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime that killed over two million Cambodians during its bizarre rule in the mid-1970s, may escape a court trial as negotiations to bring him to book have collapsed.
Many political analysts put much of the blame for the crisis on the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) which organised elections in 1993. Instead of ensuring that Ranariddh, the winner of the election, was installed at the head of a Funcinpec government, UNTAC had allowed Hun Sen's CPP to take a major role in government. "The UNTAC exercise was a waste of money and blood. Even your Indian peacekeepers spilt their blood," says an analyst. "Everybody knew, ever since the elections in 1993, that the Second Prime Minister was the de facto leader, and that Ranariddh was a figurehead," he adds.
The takeover was a convulsive climax to the bitter differences that divided the two coalition partners. In a radio broadcast last week, Hun Sen announced that Ranariddh, who escaped to France just before the fight-ing began, was no longer the first premier. The crisis was sparked by Hun Sen's allegation that Ranariddh had secretly brought in over 600 Khmer Rouge fighters into Phnom Penh with the intention to wage war, and had imported three tonnes of sophisticated weapons from Poland. "We have a videotape of the Khmer Rouge who are inside the Funcinpec party," says Leng Sochea, an official from Hun Sen's administration. Some of the weapons confiscated were anti-aircraft guns and anti-tank munitions.
Observers say that eliminating the Khmer Rouge was only a cover for Hun Sen's real intent, which was to keep Funcinpec from becoming too strong. With Ranariddh unable to return to the country, and members of Sihanouk's family being evacuated, Hun Sen is showing just how tough he can get.
In a vicious manhunt, Hun Sen's forces have singled out Ranariddh's prominent supporters. One of them, Funcinpec intelligence official Chau Sambath, died under mysterious circumstances after being dubbed a terrorist by Hun Sen's partymen. The CPP now claims he committed suicide and insists that the Funcinpec officials are still being retained in positions of authority. Fears of a bloody purge escalated when Hun Sen's forces killed another opponent, Ho Sok, also a Funcinpec member.
The remaining Funcinpec stalwarts in the capital have been asked to replace Ranariddh with a more acceptable premier. At present, Ranariddh remains Hun Sen's boss on paper. The names of three Funcinpec leaders have been suggested—Defe-nce Minister General Tea Chamrath, the governor of Siem Reap province Tuon Chay, and the first deputy chairman of the national assembly Loy Sim Chheang.
Sihanouk, the only personality today who can stand up to Hun Sen, remains in Beijing where he is undergoing medical treatment. His health and non-political role as king deter him from getting involved in the political tangle. Says leading Cambodian history expert, Dr Stephen Heder of the School of Oriental and African Studies, London: "Sihanouk should abdicate, and offer himself as the new First Prime Minister and president of Funcinpec and let the party rally around him. That would change the political equation". But such a move is certain to be blocked by the CPP, which will brook no challenge to its authority.
RANARIDDH describes the takeover as a coup. But this statement is not being backed by the US, Japan and France—three major aid donors to Cambodia. While Australia called the move 'revolutionary', it did not rule out recognition of a Hun Sen regime. Observers say that New Delhi too would welcome a Cambodia ruled by Hun Sen, as India was the first non-communist country to recognise the Heng Samrin regime in the early 1980s, a government in which he was a foreign minister. This is a remarkably soft verdict on a man once considered an international pariah on account of his close ties with Vietnam.
Hun Sen's rapid political ascent has made him one of the most powerful figures in Southeast Asia, with the exception of Indonesia's President Suharto. The 46-year-old leader, a son of Kompong Cham peasants, is now steering his country towards authoritarian rule. A good dose of that, analysts say, is just what Cambodia's indisciplined politicians need in order to emulate the economic growth of their neighbours. Hun Sen has an economic vision, of which investors caught only a fleeting glimpse during his stint in the former administration which was dissolved following the signing of the peace accord in 1991. That ended the earlier Cambodian conflict which had begun with the ouster of Sihanouk in a US-backed coup in 1970. As one observer commented: "It is time to accept the reality that he is the de facto leader".
The speed and efficiency with which Hun Sen masterminded the takeover is indicative of the manner in which he intends to run Cambodia. He has told the outside world not to interfere and is not overtly bothered by the threat that the US may cut off its annual aid of $35 million to $50 million. Nor by ASEAN's July 10 decision not to include Cambodia in the organisation. In a joint statement, foreign ministers of the ASEAN nations who met in Kuala Lumpur, declared: "In the light of unfortunate circumstances which have resulted from the use of force, the wisest course of action is to delay the admission of Cambodia".
However, a worst-case scenario for Cambodia is that while Hun Sen will be able to preserve the national capital, Phnom Penh, and the 22 provincial capitals, a war of resistance against the remaining Khmer Rouge guerrillas and against Ranariddh's soldiers will wage in the countryside.
This would have dire economic results. As Thais, Singaporeans, and Malaysians are evacuated from Phnom Penh, international donor aid and large foreign investments are likely to be greatly reduced, if not totally cut off. Says Dr Heder: "If it's not safe for the Thais, it's not safe for their investments. It's the same for the Malaysians and the Singaporeans." Hun Sen officials point out that Singapore firm, DBS Land Ltd, which is refurbishing two hotels in the country, does not plan to pull out its $50 million investment. "If peace prevails under Hun Sen, we will continue investing," says a DBS official. Dr Heder disagrees: "Some small investments will return, which will make Cambodia a 'narco' state, as these won't be credible or serious investments". Cambodia has been listed by the US as a source and transit route for narcotics.
The war-wracked country has a long way to travel before it reaches stability—whether the path is via Hun Sen's new totalitarian regime still isn't clear.