Cambodia's premier: puppet, patriot, or `new prince'? Hun Sen vies for recognition at home and abroad
Kompong Cham, Cambodia
In the home province of Cambodian leader Hun Sen stands a tall memorial, dedicated to his government's ``solidarity'' with Vietnam and the Soviet Union. The mammoth monument, carved in the ancient Khmer style, looks very, very permanent.Skip to next paragraph
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Such an impression of irreversibility and durability is just what Prime Minister Hun Sen would like to project - not only in ties with Hanoi and Moscow, but also for his government's socialist path and for himself.
``Right now, our enemies are trying to turn us into useless forces,'' says Hun Sen in an interview.
Just last January, the youthful leader of this embattled nation was asked to resign and to dismantle his regime, known as the People's Republic of Kampuchea (or Cambodia).
This request came during peace talks with his main antagonist, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the self-exiled leader of the anti-Vietnamese Cambodian resistance and a former Khmer ruler. This was Prince Sihanouk's response to Hun Sen's attempt to woo him back by offering him a figure-head post as president in the current government.
The two men are in a popularity contest of sorts, which has its serious side. The winner may rule Cambodia in the next few years as Vietnam prepares to pull out its troops by 1990, 12 years after ousting the devastating Khmer Rouge.
``The country really hasn't changed much since the 12th century,'' says an Australian diplomat.
``The current struggle is just a rearranging of relationships of people in power. The present government is still far from communist, and it has made great strides in 10 years. Time is on their side,'' he says.
Hun Sen must compete for attention with Sihanouk, once a popular king both inside Cambodia and with the international community. Meanwhile, their two armies fight each other.
Sihanouk, besides having his own troops, is assisted by 30,000 to 40,000 Khmer Rouge.
The nation's United Nations seat, for instance, now belongs to Sihanouk's coalition.
Hun Sen's regime, isolated from the West and recognized only by Soviet-bloc nations and India, is seeking Western trade and aid to help restore the economy and win the people's confidence.
Sihanouk, to many Cambodians, represents the nostalgic past and ties to the West. Hun Sen represents the status quo and the main impediment to the return of the dreaded Khmer Rouge.
In their public communications with each other, the two men carry on a verbal duet bordering on a diplomatic duel. Sihanouk calls Hun Sen a ``fox'' while Hun Sen uses the honorific ``prince.''
The prince, as Sihanouk calls himself, labels his young adversary a ``quisling'' with ``limitless Machiavellianism'' and accuses him of being a ``spokesman of Hanoi,'' which allegedly seeks to annex Cambodia.
Hun Sen, in frustration, decries Sihanouk's ``unrelenting change of mind.'' He also bristles at favorable portrayals given to Sihanouk by outsiders, and to the neglect of his own regime's accomplishments as well as ``the famous role of Vietnam.''
``The other side gives consideration only to the famous role of Prince Sihanouk,'' says Hun Sen.
``They do not look at the famous role of our republic, which controls the country, and to the famous role of Vietnam.''
Sihanouk has vowed never again to talk with Hun Sen in the spotlight of the international press because, he says, that would only strengthen ``the popularity of Hun Sen.''
On one side are the pro-Sihanoukists: ``Inside and outside Cambodia,'' says a United States diplomat, ``Sihanouk is still recognized as the leader, even though he has been out of power for 18 years.''
On the other side, are those rooting for Hun Sen:
``People in Cambodia think less of Sihanouk. They weigh him against Hun Sen. Now they think Hun Sen is more loyal to the people. Only the old people still respect Sihanouk,'' says Press Samoeur, governor of Hun Sen's home province.
One high-level official who works with Hun Sen says the prime minister is becoming the ``new prince'' and is a much sought-after speaker in villages.
Many older Cambodians think fondly of Sihanouk because his period of rule (1954-70) was the last real peace and prosperity they had.
``It is legitimate for people to recall the high point under Sihanouk,'' contends Hun Sen.