Phnom Penh, Cambodia — IT was an intimate moment, almost like father and son, when the two men first met last December. One is well known. He is the elderly Norodom Sihanouk, the once-popular king of Cambodia, who now champions an armed resistance against the Vietnamese-backed regime in his former royal capital.
The other is barely known to the world. He is Hun Sen, perhaps the world's youngest prime minister, at age 37, who now runs the government in Cambodia.
The two shared stories of earlier days while trying to negotiate a peace pact in a villa outside Paris. Despite the warmth, their two armies have been carrying on a guerrilla war in Cambodia's rice paddies and mountains.
Hun Sen surprised Prince Sihanouk by revealing why he took up arms in 1970, when he was just 19: He was responding to Sihanouk, just overthrown in a right-wing military coup, who went on radio to plead for help from his former subjects.
``I was not a communist then,'' Hun Sen said in a Monitor interview about his background and his talks with Sihanouk.
``Honestly, I had some personal feeling toward Sihanouk,'' the prime minister said. ``His call was very effective in my joining the revolution.''
Hun Sen's past - a poor peasant boy who joined the now-notorious Khmer Rouge, then defected, and fought his way back into Cambodia and into a leadership role - reveals much about the tangled drama of Cambodia (Kampuchea) over the past two decades.
Up to now, only sketchy details of his life - especially his seven years with the Khmer Rouge - have been known in the West, which has denied official ties to Hun Sen's People's Republic of Kampuchea since Vietnamese troops entered the country in 1979 to oust the Khmer Rouge.
Compared with other top communist cadres around him, Hun Sen was a latecomer to the Communist Party of Kampuchea (labeled ``Khmer Rouge'' by Sihanouk), which makes his high ranking today puzzling to outsiders.
He was born in 1951 to a poor peasant family in Kroch Chhmar, a rural district in the province of Kompong Cham. Like hundreds of other youth in 1970 when Sihanouk was overthrown, Hun Sen chose to fight against the new right-wing military regime, led by the US-backed Lon Nol. His first tasks for the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, were as a courier.
During that time, he says, communists and pro-Sihanouk nationalists fought side by side. ``Pol Pot could not do anything with [the nationalists]. He was clever ... to pull all the forces together to fight Lon Nol first,'' he recalls.
Hun Sen joined the party's youth group in 1971 and was assigned to an area labeled by Pol Pot as the Eastern Zone, which included his home province and bordered on Vietnam. His military training was conducted with the help of Viet Cong advisers, making him an above-average Khmer Rouge military leader.
Discipline within Khmer Rouge ranks was harsh. The slightest infractions often brought execution. ``In the liberated zones, they started to introduce theories that were different from what we call national liberation.
``Policies of China's Cultural Revolution were introduced. And the Pol Pot group began to select [leaders] to prepare for taking power - eliminating some authentic revolutionaries [usually those with close ties to Hanoi.]''
By late 1973, when Hun Sen had become a battalion commander, radical communist ideas began to be put in place among the peasants, such as rapid farm collectivization and the abolition of private trade. ``I saw signs of mistakes about 1974 [when Khmer Rouge controlled most rural areas]. But I did not know if it was the fault of the top leadership or of their subordinates, and whether it was nationwide or in particular districts,'' he says.
``We had no choice but to fight Lon Nol and the United States. It was only after the victory of April 1975 that we realized that ... every mistake was the work of the Pol Pot group.''
In the final Khmer Rouge assault to take Phnom Penh, Hun Sen suffered the worst of five injuries during his five years of fighting. ``On April 16, 1975, just one day before liberation, I was wounded and lost one eye. During many months in the hospital, I couldn't do much but go back and forth to my regiment. [But] I saw very clearly the ... atrocities.''
A year after taking power in 1975, Pol Pot order peasants to eat in communal kitchens. Working conditions became harsher. Estimates of the number of Cambodians who died by execution, starvation, or neglect under the Khmer Rouge range from 700,000 to 3 million.
``It was not easy to oppose the regime at the time. We were forced to conduct our activities very secretly,'' Hun Sen says.
Two years after taking power, Pol Pot ordered the first major attack on Vietnam. Even though both countries were communist-led, historical enmity and differing ideologies had created friction.
At the time Hun Sen, then commander of a regiment, was in charge of a large portion along the Vietnam border. Commanders received orders to attack Vietnam's Tay Ninh Province on May 30, 1977. Some refused and were executed. Hun Sen, when asked to take command of the operation, decided to flee. On June 20, he crossed into Vietnam, leaving behind his children and his wife. She was later imprisoned and tortured.
The attack went ahead three months later. One of the leaders was Heng Samrin, who was to defect eight months later, along with another prominent Khmer Rouge leader, Chea Sim.
Today, Chea Sim and Heng Samrin rank first and second - with Hun Sen as third - in the current Politburo of the newly formed communist-oriented party. But Hun Sen appears to all observers to be the most powerful and popular leader.
To explain his present prominence, he cites his early defection: ``By 1977, I was perhaps the highest ranking of those who took to the jungles. At that time, it was my responsibility to take command of the anti-Pol Pot forces. This movement continued until Heng Samrin and Chea Sim broke with Pol Pot and we joined forces.''
During 1978, as more and more Cambodians fled into Vietnam, the Vietnamese Army began to strike back across the border and to organize the defectors. Hun Sen and others met with top Vietnamese leaders, and prepared to topple Pol Pot.
In early December, 1978, under Vietnamese guidance, former Khmer Rouge leaders set up the Kampuchean United Front for National Salvation. Hun Sen was chosen to represent youth.
On Dec. 25, 1978, the front's battalions, backed by nearly 200,000, well-armored Vietnamese troops rolled into Cambodia. ``The situation [among the people] was like a sickness that must be saved immediately. It was necessary to liberate the whole country. But how could we when we were still short of forces?'' he asks. ``The only alternative was to appeal to Vietnam to help us.''
While the Vietnamese Army swept across the country in two weeks, front leaders formed the Kampuchean Revolutionary People's Party. Hun Sen was given a low rank in the Politburo, but was chosen as foreign minister. He says it was his proven abilities and dedication to the country that convinced his ``friends'' to select him. A small factor, he admits, was that he deserted Pol Pot earlier than most.
As foreign minster, he sent the first official request to the world asking for emergency food aid, claiming 2.25 million Cambodians were threatened by famine.
It was the first impression he was to make on the outside world, a world he understood very little himself. And it was the beginning of his rise into a more powerful role in a new Cambodia, where old allies - Sihanouk and the Khmer Rouge - were new enemies, and his main task was o correct a revolution gone awry.
First of two articles.