As the title suggests, Sebastian Strangio captures Cambodia’s modern political history through the prism of its long-term leader, Hun Sen. Drawing on a vast array of resources, and writing evocatively, Strangio creates a colourful and multi-layered portrait of Cambodia that will add to the knowledge of even the most avid kingdom-watcher.
To the average global person on the street, Cambodia probably remains synonymous with the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime of 1970s. And while the kingdom—for despite Hun Sen’s increasingly dictatorial actions, it remains a constitutional monarchy—has in many ways moved on, the legacy of its violent past, which includes the Khmer Rouge era as well as sporadic unrest through to the 21st century, very much colours the flavour of politics today. As well as covering the lead up to the civil wars, Strangio provides in this 2014-published book a clear-eyed assessment of Cambodia’s development since the UN intervention of the 1990s.
Stripped to its absolute barest, Cambodia’s politics in the modern era is riven with endless acronyms that shield shifting and often opaque alliances. Strangio somehow manages to tease them all into an intensely readable, coherent historical narrative. Part of this skill is in unearthing fascinating details. Consider, for instance, the mystery of the missing cars (and more) towards the end of the UN transitional period of the 1990s:
‘ “We are fed up,” said one UN official. “We are losing cars every night.” By September 1993, a total of 1,898 vehicles had been stolen, worth an estimated $15.8 million. This was followed by another $1.3 million worth of satellite equipment and $23.9 million in computers and other supplies. The thefts showed just how much contempt the Cambodian authorities had for the authority of the UN. “I present my apologies to the United Nations,” Sihanouk said afterward. “We did not deserve $3 billion—our behaviour is so bad, so bad.” ’
[Having lived in then-tiny Phnom Penh in the early 2000s, we are baffled as to where these cars would have gone… presumably straight across the Thai or Vietnamese border?!]
Then there’s the reminder that former King Norodom Sihanouk bizarrely had a sprawling palace in North Korea’s Changsuwon, alpine hill country north of Pyongyang; Cambodia’s story really does have it all.
Given developments in Cambodia since the book was published in 2014, we were repeatedly struck by the similarities between Hun Sen’s machinations back in the 1990s and in more recent years: The writing was always on the wall. There’s no doubt Hun Sen is a force to reckoned with, and Strangio does a fine job of describing his rise as Cambodia danced towards, and away from, the expensive democracy and institutions that were foisted upon it by a world probably more interested in ending a proxy war than Cambodia itself.
And Strangio’s depiction of Hun Sen suggests a perhaps rational response to the frustrations of dealing with a self-interested West: “Decades of Western double standards had led Hun Sen to see human rights and democracy as little more than moral flags of convenience for the advance of superpower interests. The idea of a universal democratic standard by which all nations could be judged, usually by leaders in Washington, London, or Geneva, was nothing more than a self-serving fiction.”
With hindsight, the optimism the international community had about Cambodia in the 1990s seems obviously misguided. Cambodia’s story, where democracy has persisted as a shimmering mirage—Strangio’s choice of description—rather than a reality, shows that throwing money around doesn’t create a democracy. Nor does it necessarily lead to an improvement in the lives of ordinary people whose fates are left in the hands of leaders with little interest in them.
Strangio ends with Hun Sen losing (but then somehow cobbling together a victory) in the 2013 election. He notes that first-time voters grew up under the UN, with no direct memory of the Khmer Rouge era, and that Hun Sen failed to respond effectively to this new generation. None of what he tried “addressed the real concerns of young people: jobs, education, the grind of day-to-day corruption”; as the lead up to the 2018 election and crackdowns on the media and human rights shows, Hun Sen is not changing his stripes. It’s hard to know what will come next for Cambodia, as young people demand change but its leader is as unyielding as ever. It’s hard to come away from reading the book as overly optimistic, knowing what’s gone on in Cambodia since.
For the traveller looking for a deeper understanding of the socio-political situation in Cambodia in recent years, Strangio's book is both accessible and essential reading.
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