Hundreds of diplomatic cables originating from the US Embassy in Phnom Penh published this week by anti-secrecy organization WikiLeaks show that American officials have been impressed by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s “increasing maturity” over the years, and are optimistic about his commitment to democratic reform.
But the cables also provide a glimpse of a prime minister who has proven adept at charming diplomats and telling them what they want to hear, even as he keeps his own beliefs and intentions opaque.
When WikiLeaks released its first batch of cables in November 2010, the US State Department found itself embarrassed over its diplomats’ frank assessments of the foibles and personalities of world leaders. But an initial reading of the cables out of Phnom Penh has yet to provide any bombshell disclosures.
Most criticism of Mr Hun Sen and other top CPP officials is relatively mild. Witty and biting character sketches target tycoons and royals, not top ruling party officials. And there are only brief airings in the cables of other substantive issues such as corruption, factionalism within the CPP and the politically motivated killings that have plagued the country’s recent history.
In the earliest leaked cable, sent in 1992, Foreign Minister Hor Namhong apparently alarmed US diplomats by saying the government feared Cambodians would “over-use” their human rights.
But two years later, Mr Hun Sen proved far savvier. A cable shows him heartily agreeing with a visitor, who later briefed the embassy, on the importance of democracy and freedom of expression.
The visitor, however, “admitted that he could not tell how genuinely supportive Mr Hun Sen was of basic freedoms or how much he was in agreement in order to make his guest feel good.”
During a February 2006 meeting with visiting senior US Senate staffer Paul Grove, Mr Hun Sen staged a “charm offensive that encompassed an hour and a half of discussion peppered with jokes, historical references and talking points that played to issues of US government interest,” according to the cables.
US embassy officials came away from the meeting encouraged but baffled by Mr Hun Sen’s sudden passion for democratic reform.
“Hun Sen observed that sometimes his vision for reform exceeds that proposed by the opposition and the NGO community, but government officials often are afraid to provide him with the true facts,” the embassy reported in a cable entitled “Cambodia’s Prime Minister: Working for the National Interest (For Now).”
As former US Ambassador Joseph Mussomeli departed the country in 2008, a number of messages emphasized how much Cambodia had changed for the better during Mr Mussomeli’s tenure. The US-Cambodia relationship was “better than it has ever been,” the ambassador extolled in a cable. The government was displaying “new maturity” in its relations with Thailand and with its own political opposition, and “reacting more maturely” to criticism, the departing ambassador continued.
When Mr Mussomeli paid a farewell call on the premier, the two men had a friendly chat and swapped anecdotes about participating in protests against US policies during their youth.
Later that year, when current Ambassador Carol Rodley met the premier for the first time, an almost Pollyannaish cable described Mr Hun Sen as “well-briefed…relaxed and loquacious.”
“The warmth of the prime minister’s greeting and tenor of his comments clearly indicated his pleasure at the ambassador’s appointment,” the cable said, adding that the premier had “gushingly stat[ed] that he spends more of his time with the American ambassador than with any other members of the diplomatic community.”
But the sharp contraction of political space in 2009, which saw the government unleashing a spate of lawsuits against critics, would appear to belie the embassy’s optimism about the premier’s commitment to free expression.
A cable from that period suggested that Mr Hun Sen had staged a crackdown to entrench his position within the CPP.
“Hun Sen, perceiving the need to deal with his own ‘blue’ conservative faction in the CPP (old warriors Chea Sim and Heng Samrin), must show that he has the power to enforce strict measures to uphold social order,” the embassy wrote.
The US has repeatedly refused to comment on the content of the leaked cables, while the Cambodian government has insisted that none of the revelations would affect bilateral relations.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan reiterated this yesterday.
“The relationship between the two countries is better than ever,” he said. “This is just information. It’s not about honor. They can say whatever they want.”
(Additional reporting by Phorn Bopha)