Cambodia's premier: puppet, patriot, or `new prince'? Hun Sen vies for recognition at home and abroad

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.

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.

``We were in a very good situation before 1970. But the dream of wanting to see Sihanouk come back in order to see the same prosperity - that would be an illusion. Sihanouk is not a magician.

``Our system has made substantial progress compared to Sihanouk's time,'' he adds.

Hun Sen seems most upset by Sihanouk's charge that he is a Vietnamese puppet.

``I do not dare accuse him of anything like that because we have agreed to stop insulting each other,'' he says. But, he adds, ``Look at the one who accuses me of being a puppet,'' citing Sihanouk's own complaints of being controlled by China and the Khmer Rouge.

``If we are able to rebuild the country,'' he adds, ``then maybe it's good to be a puppet.

``We cannot forget the life that we lived together [with the Vietnamese] in the same trenches, fighting the common enemy, and the assistance we received from the Vietnamese people,'' he says.

``Apart from the official relationships, I have a personal relationship with Vietnamese leaders,'' he adds.

To show that he is not a Hanoi puppet, however, Hun Sen cites two examples:

His government does not follow Vietnam's economic policies (which have failed).

He was free to offer a deal to Sihanouk last October that included creating a non-socialist, neutral Cambodia.

His Marxist-Leninist party, says Hun Sen, ``has the ability to lead the country to socialism if there is no solution with Sihanouk. We will remain a member of the socialist [pro-Soviet] community.''

With a largely peasant nation, Hun Sen says the country is a long way from socialism:

``We are in the process of preparing to enter the road to socialism.''

``The other possibility is that the Kampuchea issue can be solved with many parties taking part; the other parties could not accept a socialist system, that is why we offered this concession.''

Hun Sen says he reads the works of Lenin (like the young Ho Chi Minh during the 1920s), and believes Lenin's New Economic Policy (which called for limited capitalism under socialism) may be useful to Cambodia.

Since rising up in the party's Politburo and becoming prime minister in 1985, Hun Sen has quickly set his stamp on the country.

He often promotes bureaucratic experts over party stalwarts, and handles every problem in what observers call a ``fast and pragmatic way.''

``He's very intense, but can be very kind. He both supports his staff and uses competition between them,'' says a UN official who meets with him often. (At least two of Hun Sen's top aides have defected, one recently at the talks with Sihanouk.)

He lives in a big house, with a wife and six children, near the monument in downtown Phnom Penh that Sihanouk had built after Cambodia gained independence from the French in 1954.

One sister and a brother work in the government, while an older brother, Hun Neng, is party chief in their home province. To relax, Hun Sen says, he plays badminton with his wife.

Men Sam An, head of Cambodia's Women's Association, describes Hun Sen as ``wise and cunning. He can be both stubborn and yet close to people.''

The man himself appears gentle, but when pushed on a sensitive issue, rises up, punching the air with his fist to make a counterpoint.

``He is intelligent, bordering on genius,'' says one international official who meets with him regularly.

His humor is subtle. For instance, he recently was standing under pictures of Marx and Lenin and remarked to a colleague that the two founders of communism had been added to the pantheon of Cambodian gods.

Despite his high rank, Hun Sen's actions often reflect his youth; he is 37.

On a recent official flight, for instance, he stripped off almost all his clothes in the hot Soviet-made plane and engaged in a chess match with colleagues, recalls Vietnamese journalist Bui Tin.

Hun Sen, who often compares his economic and diplomatic achievements to the Sihanouk period, is proud of his record.

``If Sihanouk had been here since 1979,'' Hun Sen says, ``he could not have done any better than we have. We started from nothing, and even now are still in condition of war and peace.''

Second of two parts. The first part ran Friday, June 10.

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