Editorial | Articles about Cambodia | Khmer

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Hun Sen: ‘We cannot work without support’

Wednesday, 11 June 2008
Hun Sen: ‘We cannot work without support’

Prime Minister Hun Sen has led Cambodia for the last 23 years, becoming the longest-serving prime minister in Southeast Asia and, as deputy president of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and the CPP’s premiership candidate, he will continue to play a large role after July’s national elections.

In these translated excepts from an exclusive Khmer-language interview with Neth Pheaktra, editor-in-chief of The Mekong Times, the premier discussed the economy, development, corruption, the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, the upcoming election and his political goals.

On what do you base your predictions of a Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) victory in the July 27 parliamentary elections?

As far as my prediction on the success of the CPP in the election is concerned, a similar assessment has been made in both international and national circles. On what basis does the CPP expect to win the election? The CPP began building its support base in 1993 with the winning of 51 seats at the National Assembly [NA], then 64 seats in 1998 and 73 seats in 2003. This basis is the foundation of [the CPP’s] support when it faces difficulties. However, in the third mandate government, [Cambodia] achieved double-digit economic growth, poverty has been reduced, and people’s living conditions and the physical infrastructure has improved. These [achievements] will attract people in the upcoming election.

I do not think that the number of our [CPP] NA seats will be lower than 73 because of what we have achieved so far. In fact, we are not being overly ambitious. In the 2007 commune council election, we examined the number of ballot votes and calculated them against the number of parliamentarian seats – we would have won 90 seats [if it had been a parliamentary election]. However, the CPP’s target is only 81, with some constituencies we are determined to keep. In some [constituencies], we want to take seats. For example, in Kampot province, we had only four seats in the second mandate, but we lost one seat. Now, we just want to increase it to four seats, not five. In Prey Veng province, we lost one seat but that does not mean that we lost supporters; it is due to the fact … [voters ticked the wrong column. So we are] determined to take one seat back. For other provinces, we urged for an increase in the numbers [of NA seats under CPP control].

If we can achieve 81 seats or more, it would be good but the winning of 73 seats will allow us victory. The CPP’s victory was achieved in 1998 with the winning of 53 percent [of the votes]. So, it is not difficult to form a government as the “two thirds formula” has already been abandoned [in favor of “50 percent plus one”].

This is the basis … [of CPP’s rising percentage of the vote] from 51 to 64 and from 64 to [a predicted] 73. The [CPP support] base has grown along with the good performance of the CPP and government in providing support [direct aid] to people until we were banned by the [Election] law … [I]t could be said that the CPP provides [support] to people ‘like drizzle’. Thus the people trust us because they are sure of the benefits.

[The CPP also hopes to benefit from] … a big fracturing of the opposition parties. Funcinpec – which gained 26 NA seats [in 2003] – is divided into Funcinpec and the Norodom Ranariddh Party [NRP]. So, [according to] political strategies or military tactics, neither Funcinpec nor the NRP have a chance to attack [the CPP].

The Sam Rainsy Party [SRP] is in a ‘bloody situation’ prior to the election. I do not want to criticize other parties, but competing for the number one position is not easy. However, politicians are always bragging about their planned victory. We must not [overlook] their chance [to win the election], but they also have to accept the CPP’s chances. We have to know our own resources clearly and the resources of newly-formed parties.

The attempt to form a royalist and democrat alliance has foundered. The division I mentioned earlier is due to the registration of parliamentary candidates and also I think because of competition for senior positions amongst opponents. They have no chance to marshal enough forces to attack the CPP. I regret that they said their alliance is aimed at defeating the CPP. They do not need to defeat the CPP – as it would [disappear] if they won the election. They are only able to talk; they cannot even defeat [their partners] … They compete for “opposition” status and cannot work together. I think it is better if they stay [separate].

I only mention three opposition parties – the Sam Rainsy Party [SRP], the Norodom Ranariddh Party [NRP] and the Human Rights Party [HRP] … I think that it is good if they cannot unite because, when they merge together, who will be the president? Problems could arise … [D]ivision amongst the opposition will be wider if the parties merge together. If we melt three glasses into one, when it breaks, the pieces will be larger.

[I]n 1998, when Funcinpec and the SRP formed an alliance to oppose the government … after the alliance broke, conflict between them was bigger. In 2003, they again formed an alliance to oppose the CPP and me. However, when it broke up, their conflict was bigger [than in 1998], with Prince Norodom Ranariddh filing a lawsuit against Sam Rainsy. It was I who asked for Sam Rainsy’s pardon …

International factors also favor the CPP in the election. In 1993 how many countries supported the CPP? In 1998, how many supported and opposed the CPP? In 2003, we still saw a little foreign hostility towards us. However, in 2008, those countries did not just support the CPP, but are now cooperative partners with the government. In the second mandate, I introduced a triangular strategy with ‘an angle’ to integrate Cambodia into the region and the world. We have to date been involved in a framework of full cooperation, including UN operations. We have sent troops to Sudan [to clear mines] and Mongolia and Bangladesh to join military training …

In the past, Cambodia had both enemies and friends, but now Cambodia has only friends in the world.

To form a government, a political party must have 50 percent plus one of the NA seats. If the CPP wins a majority, will there be any partners in government?

It is a no to new partners. There is a possibility of an old partner. I would like to strongly reiterate what I have said on radio and television: that the CPP cannot partner with the SRP … [We] have two simple reasons; firstly, because of the 50 percent plus one formula, we do not need other parties; secondly, domestic and international policies are widely different [between the two parties]. Because the political gap is too wide, we cannot work together. They [the SRP] always oppose us whenever we propose any plan. So, it means that after the election we cannot work together …

As for Funcinpec, I think that a coalition might happen. But according to our Constitution, the prime minister can only form a new government with members from other parties which have won NA seats. If the party has no seats at the NA, the party’s officials can only be appointed as under secretaries of state or government advisors. If we allow them into government, we are breaking the Constitution. I can confirm that we could see new forces from the SRP. We have appointed SRP officials as under secretaries of state and government advisors, and will promote the officials to secretaries of state or include them [in government] following the election. Funcinpec officials who have already defected to the CPP and were appointed as ministers, secretaries of state or under secretaries of state can keep their positions.

My language is easy to understand – namely ‘keeping the old and adding the new’ … As you have seen, the CPP has a lot of human resources, but it still needs other resources. However, if the whole opposition [SRP] party wants to merge with the CPP, we cannot accept it because the political gap is too wide.

The delay in adopting the long-awaited anti-corruption law has been criticized by civil society, with the Cambodian Center for Human Rights collecting over one million thumbprints in protest. Is the government doing enough to combat corruption?

I would like to reiterate that the government does not wish to delay the approval of the anti-corruption bill. But we must prioritize. I have explained to other people that we are delaying the law’s adoption because we want to speed up the approval of [French-backed] penal code.

Do you believe that these thumbprints are real? I accept there has been some thumbprint [collection], but this NGO [the Cambodian Center for Human Rights] dares not reveal who has made the thumbprints because it fears there would be something amiss uncovered with its leader and others. This is because the public was allowed to anonymously put [their written allegations of corruption] into a letterbox created by the center. Do you think when they collected these one million thumbprints they explained [why] to people? Even one million marbles are difficult to count, but one million people – that’s ridiculous. One million thumbprints are not difficult to come by – one person can produce 100 or 200 or 400 or 500 thumbprints. … [Perhaps] some of those who thumbprinted the appeal thought it was an appeal for aid.

I don’t know how these thumbprints were produced, but I know that allegations of corruption are not new in Cambodia. In any country, when any person is to be toppled, corruption allegations are used. You can see in neighboring Thailand. They accused Thaksin Shinawatra of committing corruption and then carried out a coup to overthrow him. Military officials also filed a lawsuit, asking for permission to dissolve Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai Party and ban 111 politicians from engaging in politics. However, because Samak Sundaravej formed the People’s Power Party and used the name of Thaksin [during the election campaign, he] … won the election.

The CPP government does not pay lesser attention to corruption … Previously, before investors could obtain permission to run their businesses, they had to spend a lot of time filling in forms for one office or another. After our reforms — do the investors still complain about the delays and ‘under-the-table’ charges with trade registration mentioned during the Government-Private Sector Forum in 1999? No such complaints were heard at the latest forum …

[We] have introduced a “One Stop Service” where we have tried to reduce corruption through the establishment of a workplace where customs officials, Camcontrol officials, and border police are put under one roof. So, though [we have yet to pass] the law on corruption … we have reduced corruption.

In addition, though we have stopped large-scale commercial logging in the past several years, we accept that some illegal logging activities still persist. However, the large-scale logging and the transportation of logs, which resulted in bridge collapses between 1993 and 1998, no longer exists. This shows how we are involved in the fight against corruption. In our reform of fishing lots, the people have been allowed control over 56 percent [of fishing lots] covering more than half-a-million hectares of lakes, to reduce corruption. Existing laws were made with the inclusion of penalties so we do not need to wait for the anti-corruption law … for example; if you encroach on other people’s land, we will use the Land Law, and if you log the forest, the Forestry Law will be used. If you fish illegally, we will use the Fishery Law.

I think that those who want to attack the government over corruption might not be able to do so, as they are committing corruption in a larger form. They commit corruption even though they have yet to gain power. The government never ignores the fight against corruption.

The relationship between the government and international human rights organizations seems to be difficult. Why? What must be done to change Cambodia’s reputation?

It is very clear that a controversy has broken out, most seriously when [Special Representative of the UN Secretary General on Human Rights in Cambodia] Yash Ghai was here. It is easy to understand that we cannot cooperate together as he said things that were contrary to the facts. I do not need to elaborate. If he speaks the truth, I will welcome his cooperation, but if he continues saying things contrary to the facts, I will not cooperate. I did not expel him. He can visit whenever he wants. I do not need his praise, I do not need his criticism, and I ask him only to speak the truth. If he does not speak the truth and he sees us as enemies, why must we cooperate with him? [I] ask him to work with anyone he can. Please go ahead! I am not stopping [him].

As for me, I can play around with a dog or with other animals, but I do not play with a person who has reason and yet acts like an animal. Saying so is serious, but they [international human rights organizations] seem to us to be animals, and fierce animals at that. I would like to stress again that my most easy-to-understand objection is that they violate the facts and accuse us unjustly. This is why the controversy broke out. I just ask them to do what they can — speak the truth. I do not ask for praise but I also do not want to be unfairly demeaned.

I appeal for the truth. If they say they made a mistake, it will be easy for me to correct them … What should I do? For instance, concerning the Tum Ring rubber plantation measuring thousands of hectares, they [NGO Global Witness] said that Tum Ring has not a single rubber tree. This example alone is enough for me to know I don’t need to work with [Global Witness] because this is not how human beings behave. Tum Ring does not have a single tree, but rather has millions of trees …

I am busy with my work and do not have anything to discuss with such people. If Cambodia does not have this type of people, it’s like the old saying: “If a cock does not crow, the sun will still surely rise.” Human rights groups were not here when we liberated the country from the Pol Pot regime and provided rights and freedom for people. So, 29 years ago in Cambodia, we fulfilled our obligations. What are the important rights? The right to life is the first and foremost and the most important. Where were those people then? The right to receive food, the right to receive education, and the right to [free] speech – all these rights existed before. Yash Ghai had not yet arrived to preach, yet we had already provided these rights.

Will the government grant funds for the financially beleaguered Khmer Rouge Tribunal?

I think that the United Nations and some countries are causing other countries to lose confidence in the trials. Previously, they forced us to deal with the issue … though in 1979 I already sentenced [the Khmer Rouge leadership]. Regarding the Paris Peace Accords, I negotiated for a long time about the Khmer Rouge Trial, but other countries did not agree. When the Khmer Rouge weakened, their political organization and military were dissolved, and were all integrated. They [the Khmer Rouge defectors] imposed restrictions on us day after day when we were negotiating with the UN.

The negotiations [for the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, or Khmer Rouge Tribunal] were made with a pledge to grant funds. We also made great efforts to do the work within the means of our meager budget, and [we had to allocate] part of that money for the cost of water and electricity, accommodation and security. It is not cheap – the court uses a lot of money.

Now we hear of delays! I think that the process can work quicker, but I have no right to set the procedures of the court or push the court to do this or that. I don’t have any rights concerning this issue. But regarding Cambodia’s possibility to provide additional budget, my answer is that, if [I offer money], it will be a small amount because I need to build bridges, roads and canals for the people. I call on the UN and those who promised to provide money. Any failure of the court due to budget shortages is not Cambodia’s responsibility.

Cambodia is often depicted in the media as reliant on aid for survival and as a country which has done little to alleviate poverty since 1993. What is your view of such an appraisal?

First of all, we have to see the achievements that have been made as ‘starting from empty hands’. How has Cambodia progressed? In the last four years, double-digit economic growth has been a miracle only China could duplicate. Can we say that our governance is not good when it provided the opportunity for double-digit economic growth? National annual revenues have increased nearly 23 percent. Would such an increase be possible without good governance? If everything was bad, maybe Cambodia would be in a similar situation to Myanmar which receives almost no humanitarian assistance or financial assistance, besides that provided by China, India and other countries with a close relationship …

But for Cambodia, you can see that the IMF decided to cancel debt worth US$82 million. What is the reason? The IMF thoroughly examines evidence. What has Cambodia achieved? Why did [the IMF] eliminate the debt, transferring the money for canal construction? … The World Bank [WB] and the Asian Development Bank [ADB] still offer financing and assistance. I would like to explain why.

The IMF left Cambodia in 1996-1997 as, at the time, Cambodia did not follow the codes of conduct we had agreed with the IMF. But now the IMF has returned to work in Cambodia in the second and third mandates, and during the third mandate, it canceled debt worth US$82 million …

[The] ADB and the WB provide loans [only if a country’s] classification is good. If they think we cannot repay them, they would not allow us to borrow.

Previously Japan was hesitant in providing loans to Cambodia but now it allows us to borrow. The former [Japanese] deputy minister of finance and former minister of foreign affairs told me that [Cambodia] should borrow money from Japan … At the time, I reminded [the Japanese] that Japan had previously been afraid Cambodia could not repay loans, but they immediately said that Cambodia is able to repay …

Go and ask the IMF why it eliminated Cambodia’s debt. Go and ask the WB and the ADB why they granted aid and loans … [I]f we did not govern well and deal with labor issues fairly, perhaps the US would not buy clothing from Cambodia. But perhaps Cambodia is mostly on the right track. We did not eliminate all deficiencies – if people do not recognize deficiencies and say that everything is good, they are quick to fall. I recognize deficiencies so, regarding the rectangular strategy we recently reviewed, we admit there are many points that must be improved in future. That is not the end.

I stated that, if we continue reforms, we have a 99 percent chance of survival [success] and a one percent of death [failure]. But if we do not reform, we have a 99 percent chance of death [failure] and a one percent chance of survival [success]. Therefore, we must encourage reform.

Cambodia is a member of both Asean and the World Trade Organization [WTO] but Cambodian exports are not that competitive. What will the government do to raise Cambodia’s game?

If we examine the issues of competition within the framework of trade which receives preference from the WTO, we are still weak. Our weakness is that we are a new member. Our production base and markets can be compared to old members or new members, but their goods sources are stronger, for example, another new member, Vietnam. [Some] new members … are more like old members because their production base is better than ours. They only recently obtained membership, but they have a better production base. We are one of the old members, but our production base does not match other countries, except in textile production. Thus we can be considered fairly competitive.

Regarding agriculture, perhaps Cambodia still has much potential. The food crisis in global markets created a big opportunity for Cambodia and its farmers. The lifting of the ban on rice exports is Cambodia’s gesture to fulfill its obligation to assist countries facing problems related to food prices and food shortages. It also shows Cambodia’s preparedness to compete and open markets in other countries facing food crises. I told the commerce minister that, when exporting rice to Senegal, we must find other African countries that can export [rice to countries such as Senegal]. But in some places, we [cannot compete]. For instance, if we compare the quality of our rice with Thai and Vietnamese rice, their rice is better quality. We cannot win that competition …

I think that such achievements are sufficient if we consider our start from scratch. How much did Cambodia export before? Even until 1994, our exports totaled about US$200 million. Textile exports totaled only US$4 million. But textile exports in 2007 totaled US$2.9 billion … and our total exports reached over US$4 billion. Our scope of exports is very big for a small country. Laos exported less than US$1 billion even though it has developed without the disasters that have befallen Cambodia. But the scope of Cambodia’s exports is not yet enough. We need to achieve bigger exports through the strengthening of our economy.

Some opposition politicians have criticized you over alleged loss of territory to neighboring countries. What is your response?

First of all, I should reitierate that in Cambodia and Thailand, if any person is to be toppled, that person will be charged with corruption. Cambodia has only two stories. If anyone wants to be opposed, then that person will be charged with corruption and border irregularities. It is not unusual. General Lon Nol and his clique conducted a coup against Samdech Norodom Sihanouk and sentenced him using these two kinds of allegation – firstly corruption and secondly selling land to Vietnam. Regarding border issues, [famous Cambodian singer] Sin Sisamuth’s song relating to border issues was broadcast on TV with a map shown. If they [the opposition] want to oppose anyone, they use three main allegations – corruption, border issues and immigration. You can wait and see that whenever anyone comes to power, they [the political opposition] will use these three issues to oppose that person. If the CPP became the opposition party, it would not raise these allegations it knows so well.

I am a man of the younger generation born in 1952. The French National Assembly ceded Kampuchea Krom to Vietnam in 1949. Now, I am accused of losing Kampuchea Krom territory. How can people accuse me of that? Particularly, Prince Norodom Ranariddh’s groups alleged that I adopted the Cambodia-Vietnam border treaty when the prince was the president of the National Assembly. In fact, the prince’s grandparents and father with surnames of Norodom and Sisowath were the rulers at that time. This issue did not happen during Hun Sen’s era, it occurred in the regime of the Kingdom of Cambodia [constitutional monarchy under King Norodom Sihanouk] and during the French colonial times. More regrettably, at the time, the Cambodian delegation abstained. Please, research the documents. Why say that I am the one who lost [this territory]? I just take responsibility for the territory left by the French colonists, according to the decisions of France’s Indochinese General Governor and the map that Samdech Norodom Sihanouk kept at the UN.

It is a pity that some politicians allege Cambodia loses 100 meters, 200 meters, 300 meters or more of territory each day. The people residing along borders express surprise … This is a very big strategic mistake. Why? The people living along borders farm land and build houses near borders … [T]he CPP wins all the votes of those people living in communes near borders. Why? Because opposition politicians look down [on border residents]. If kilometers [of Cambodian territory] are lost along the borders everyday, where do those residents live? On Thai, Lao, Vietnamese or Cambodian soil? Clearly, they still live in Cambodian territory. They are Cambodian nationals. Therefore, looking down on people living along the border is enough for them [opposition politicians] to lose.

I do not need to correct them. Do they fool border residents? They cannot. They try to fool ‘insiders’ [people living far from the borders], but they cannot because ‘insiders’ have siblings living near borders and people can now communicate by phone where previously, there were no telephone connections … This is the tactical or strategic mistake of those [opposition] politicians.

You were one of the youngest democratically elected prime ministers and the prime minister who has served longest in Southeast Asia. What does the future hold for Hun Sen?

I was the youngest prime minister in the past, but now maybe I am one of the oldest prime ministers at present, because prime ministers and presidents in some countries are only 30 to 40 years old, and I am over 50 years old …

What is my political goal? In fact, to be prime minister is very tiring. But we must tolerate the fatigue to seek the people’s happiness. If the CPP did not back me, people would not vote for the CPP. The CPP uses the name of Hun Sen to campaign, saying that, if the CPP wins elections, Hun Sen will be prime minister. It clearly means that, if you like Hun Sen, please vote for the CPP. I must continue to shoulder burdens to seek happiness for [Cambodian] people and meet the people’s requests. If people do not vote [for the CPP], it means that they do not need us – we don’t need to make further efforts. We will leave without any regrets …

If we listen to the voice of opposition groups, their voice is really fierce and frightening. If they are promoted to the position of prime minister, what will they do? For example, confiscating properties from the rich to distribute to the poor, and the cancellation of foreign contracts – how much turmoil will be caused? In Zimbabwe, after [President Robert] Mugabe caused chaos the results of the first election were invalid. And during the second election an opposition candidate was arrested. How could we allow a country that has just achieved peace to plunge into such a situation? …

I have announced that I will continue to stand as premiership candidate until the people no longer need me. To make it clear, [we] do not need to set a maximum term [for prime minister] because no government dictates [maximum prime ministerial] terms. Setting a maximum term could occur in a presidential regime; for example, in the US and in France. However, no country has set a maximum term for prime ministers.

Why do they [opposition politicians] request a maximum prime minister’s term? It could be that they are afraid of me, Hun Sen. If the present prime minister was not Hun Sen, they might not make such a proposal. If [the leader is] weak, they keep the leader in the place so that they will find it easy to defeat them. They never request a weak leader to step down, because they can [easily] attack such a leader. So, these people [who suggest a maximum term] should admit they are unable to defeat Hun Sen if Hun Sen stands [as premiership candidate] …

On the other hand, we can see the [CPP is] developing human resources. We have assigned young officials to [positions in] the party and in state institutions because we know the current officials will not live to be 500-years-old. I do not have the longevity to serve as prime minister until I turn 90 or 100. However, I am able to work as prime minister until they [political opposition figures] become old and have no power to compete … Thus, I would like to announce that I will stand as the premiership candidate until the people no longer need me.

However, we also consider the possibility of resigning if many mistakes are made or if we are not able to carry out reform. In such a situation, we should [resign] and transfer power to other people so that they can improve the situation. I will not resist [any such demands for my resignation] … I want to stress that we cannot work without support.

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