New ‘Cambodian Diary’ Tells of Leader’s Evolution
Hun Sen can tell you what “A Long Road to Peace” it’s been.
In his second “Cambodian Diary,” journalist Jacques Bekaert tracks the progress between 1987 and 1993 of the People’s Revolutionary Party of Kampuchea, seeking clues to the future of Cambodia.
Mostly he finds empty communist rhetoric, unrealistic politburo policies and internal party divisions.
Bekaert also finds an alienated and disenfranchised Cambodian population.
And shining through it all is Hun Sen, prime minister since 1985 and a controversial party figure to this day. The book shows that Hun Sen was the distillation of Cambodians’ hope for peace at a time when the nation was struggling.
“Maybe our single greatest accomplishment has been to bring the population back to normal life,” the then-prime minister of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea government told Bekaert in a 1988 interview.
Hun Sen knew his party did not enjoy popular support. He knew socialism was not the future of development in Cambodia. And he knew that Cambodia’s road to peace would run through China, Vietnam, and many other countries.
“I am aware that the road to peace is a long one, that the process is complex because the conflict involves many countries,” Hun Sen said.
It took years for Bekaert, a Belgian who is now the ambassador to Cambodia for the Or-der of Malta, to get this story.
Frustrated by visa restrictions that prevented him coming to Phnom Penh, Bekaert admits in his first book, “Tales of a Divided Nation,” which documents events from 1983-1986 and was published last year, that he relied heavily for information on the border resistance groups, which he found more accessible.
In “Long Road”—a selection of vignettes from weekly columns written for the Bangkok Post—Bekaert takes advantage of looser travel restrictions and the unexpected invitation to visit Phnom Penh and cozy up to the reclusive PRPK, the forerunner of the Cambodian People’s Party.
Bekaert notes that while he applied through every possible channel, it took him four years to get permission for his 1983 visit to Phnom Penh.
Then, the Vietnamese invited him to watch some of their troops pull out—a claim that would be mistrusted by the international community for years. “It took me five years—and countless demands—to get a second visa,” he recalls.
But he eventually did return to write “Long Road,” a wry look at the power players, difficult steps and political maturation of the PRPK.
Bekaert’s account also remarks on the party’s corruption, hollow rhetoric and public deception.
Throughout, the prose is more comfortable and loose than hard-news journalese. The book shows that its author has travelled extensively in the country.
In 1989, Bekaert talks with Hun Neang, Hun Sen’s younger brother, on the problems of development in sprawling Kompong Cham province.
He takes a day trip that same year to guerrilla-plagued Kampot with Hun Sen at the wheel. “I want to talk directly to the people, to ask them about their living conditions,” Hun Sen told Bekaert.
Bekaert takes the party to task for the disappearance of Pen Sovann, whom he interviews upon the former prime minister’s re-emergence in 1993, and for systematic surveillance and sacking of party officials.
He also illustrates the widespread ignorance that the party typified and its pressure on members to toe the line.
In sizing up the party in 1987, Bekaert quotes “an insider” as saying, “To become a [core] member is a dangerous honor. If you refuse, you become suspect. But once you are a core member you have to be a lot more careful about what you say, about your lifestyle.”
Bekaert also relates how “security” officials had questioned those suspected of passing information to him.
He writes that corruption in the party, barely one year after the economy was loosened in 1989, damaged its reputation with the people.
The party did not inspire hope for the future, and its communist ideology was only manifest in pockets of the population, Bekaert wrote in 1990.
“The Party is something remote, another organization that seems to benefit its members. In the provinces the Party rules. Indeed, that much is clear. To a large extent the Party appears as a self-perpetuating organization. The Party exists because the Party exists,” he wrote.
And by 1993, “The CPP is believed to be responsible for the majority—but not all—of the political killings that have been rocking the country since the beginning of the year,” Bekaert reported.
Perhaps the most eloquent parts of “Long Road” are Bekaert’s impressions of Hun Sen, who in the late 1980s was Cambodia’s reformer. Bekaert notes throughout the book that peace was unwaveringly the top priority for Cambodia and Cambodians, and Hun Sen was seen as integral to that desire.
“Hun Sen is often described by Cambodians in Phnom Penh and the provinces as the only PRPK leader who really wants peace. True or not, this is the popular conviction. So it matters,” Bekaert wrote in 1991.
As Bekaert notes that the road to peace is long, it also winds back on itself. Hun Sen—then as now—is viewed as a symbol of factional mistrust between and within political parties.
In the run-up to 1993’s elections, Hun Sen blamed conservative elements for political intimidation, and the party, in turn, blamed Hun Sen for selling out to Untac and then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk, Bekaert wrote.
And while Bekaert reports that Hun Sen was the greatest hope for peace and democracy then, Hun Sen’s commitment to peace—he now has access to a bodyguard force larger than some Cambodian army divisions—has been questioned since.
Hun Sen proved a prophet for the ideological difficulties that his party would struggle with in a new decade, and the fears that would plague two subsequent elections. “Hun Sen knows he has a future in a new Cambodia; he knows the Cambodian people do not want socialism, as he told me more than a year ago,” Bekaert wrote in 1991.
“He also knows that time is not necessarily in favor of the State of Cambodia and that the ruling People’s Revolutionary Party of Kampuchea lacks strong popular support, partly because the local population sees the party as an obstacle to peace.”