Cambodian Children Say PM is Good Guy

When the worst floods in memory ravaged the country last year, Prime Minister Hun Sen took a series of trips to the provinces to make personal gifts to those afflicted.

On a visit to Kandal province last September, the premier’s minders ordered the donations be carried out, not on dry land where villagers had taken shelter, but on the banks of the Mekong where the river had recently flooded. TV images and newspaper photographs would later show the premier wading through floodwaters to greet a hand-picked group of village elders.

Waiting in ankle-deep water for Hun Sen’s speedboat to arrive in L’vea Em district, some journalists grumbled that they were being forced to participate in a media stunt.

But if it was indeed a stunt, it appears to have worked, at least with the nation’s children. Recent interviews with dozens of children between the ages of 6 and 15 show that it is the prime minister’s image as the personal benefactor of the poor—not his politics—that is shaping young Cambodians’ opinions.

“I saw him frequently on TV,” said Chhiv Leang Kich, 14, who attends Wat Phnom secondary school in Phnom Penh. “He gave aid to poor people and flooded people in the countryside. He has done a lot more than other leaders….He is a good man.”

For more than 20 years, Hun Sen has been at the forefront of Cambodian politics. For many children, he is the leader they grew up with. But it is only recently that TV has brought the premier into people’s homes. More than 90 percent of households in Phnom Penh and more than 50 percent of rural households now have televisions or access to television, according to a recent Reuters report.

“It’s not like 10 years ago,” when there was virtually no media and fewer people owned televisions, said Khieu Kanharith, secretary of state for the Ministry of Information. “Today there is more and more media.”

While opposition politicians struggle to get coverage, pictures of Hun Sen appear daily on all TV stations and most newspapers, media observers said. Images of the premier launching building projects, making donations and inaugurating his self-named schools help cultivate his reputation as a man of the people.

Opponents of Hun Sen have denounced the premier’s school- construction program as an exercise in self-aggrandizement. They have called his flood-relief trips a ploy meant to shore up support for the ruling CPP.

But those complaints don’t appear to hold much water with children.

Chhiv Leang Kich, the Phnom Penh high school student, said he has heard adults complain about the prime minister’s politics, accusing him of being a communist, but said, “I don’t know him as a politician. I consider him as a helper.”

Eight-year-old Srey Luch of Phnom Penh said she has seen the prime minister on television giving books to school children.

“I like him,” she said, “but I don’t know what politics is.”

Children spoke favorably of the strongman who is willing to sit on the ground with villagers, of the one-time farmer and soldier who understands the problems of ordinary people.

“I saw him walking to the rice field to help plant for people in the rainy season,” said Yeang Pich, 14, of Battambang province. “He knows about the difficulties of farmers in the countryside, as he has done [farming] before he became a leader.”

By contrast,  members of the royal family, such as National Assembly President Prince Norodom Ranariddh, strike some children as aloof.

Although royalty sympathize with the problems of Cambodian people, they don’t have a first-hand understanding of what those problems are, children said.

Children compared the refined language used by Prince Rana­riddh, including use of the feminine pronoun “cha,” with the earthier, more direct language used by the prime minister.

“I do not understand royal language,” said Pouk Chantha, 13, a farmer’s son in Banteay Mean­chey province. “It is another language for me, and there is too much bowing.”

It’s the tough guy, Hun Sen, that many children said they preferred.

“I like [Hun Sen] because he speaks loudly and strongly,” said 6-year-old Sok Tuot of Phnom Penh. “He is a strong man. When I grow up, I want to be like him.” (Additional reporting by Alex Devine)






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