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Hun Sen and Democracy

by Alan Knight

Hun Sen's military coup in Cambodia can be traced directly back to the UN's failure to enforce the results of the 1993 elections.

The United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia brought a truce among most of the warring factions, helped revive the almost dead Cambodian economy, destroyed a vast amount of military heavy ordinance, tried to re-introduce the administration of justice, and most importantly supervised free and fair elections. But they failed to take on Hun Sen; even though there were clear indications that he would resist the democratic process.

Election day had been one of joy and celebration throughout the country. Phnom Penh's biggest polling station , at the old abandoned Olympic stadium complex, was mobbed by laughing locals who ignored the the storms which heralded the wet season. Out in rural areas, people got up early, donned their best clothes and walked or cycled into the UN policed polling booths. At Chhuk Pagoda, which I visited mid morning, they ignored local Khmer Rouge forces who threatened to burn down the houses of those who voted. The were still streaming into the polling booths there, even as the outpost came under mortar attack.

Prince Ranariddh's FUNCINPEC party won the election handsomely with 45.3% of the votes compared to Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party (CPP), 38.7%. They did so in spite of a campaign of confiscations, arson, bombing and murder committed by Hun Sen's supporters. Even before the election, the UN's Special Prosecutor, Mark Plunkett, had a list of high ranking CPP officials who he wished to bring to trial. The cases against them had been extensively researched by detectives seconded from the Australian Federal Police. Intially, Plunkett was told by his UN superiors that there were no jails available to hold them. (At that time, UN human rights staff were busy closing the medieval prisons where opponents of Hun Sen, petty criminals, and even a few enemies of the Khmer Rouge had been previously cast and forgotten.) Plunkett persisted, found the funds and actually constructed a small prison inside an warehouse, ominously titled "The Phnom Penh Import/Export Agency". He was then told troops were not available to provide guards. Plunkett complained that the UNTAC leadership were afraid to move against the CPP. He later resigned before his contract was completed and returned to Australia where he now works as a defence lawyer.



Ranariddh had been elected Secretary General of Funcinpec in 1989 and became its President in 1992. During the election campaign, Ranariddh closely identified himself with his father, later to become King Sihanouk:

"Today, I feel I am born again after more than twenty years when the country fell into a holocaust. FUNCINPEC was established by Sihanouk and I am his son. I and my father are standing here with you." The Front Uni National Pour Un Cambodge Independent, Neutre, Pacifique et Cooperatif was initially a liberation front aimed at ending the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia. It transformed itself into a political party at its Congress in February 1992. The party manifesto called for a liberal democratic government characterised by "multipartism" and a separation of powers among executive, legislative and judicial bodies. It also called for a "free enterprise, market oriented system".

Mr Ung Huot, the party's election campaign director said that democracy and the reconciliation of the Cambodian people would bring development at the economic and social level. "We should leave behind us our disputes between ourselves and all the hatreds, and start to rebuild the country," he said hopefully.

Hun Sen became Prime Minister of what was to become the State of Cambodia (SOC) in 1985, after serving as Foreign Minister since 1979. In 1993, he was also Vice President of the Cambodian People's Party (CPP). The son of a peasant family, Hun Sen had spent most of his adult life prior to the Vietnamese occupation as a member of the Khmer Rouge. He defected to Vietnam in 1977, at the height of Pol Pot's purge of pro-Vietnamese cadres. He lost an eye during the war. Speaking at an election rally, Hun Sen said of himself:

"Who is Hun Sen? Some say he's Vietnam's puppet; others say he is a Khmer Rouge member. During the struggle against the Americans, I was accused of being a Colonel of Lon Nol, but was not arrested...In Moscow, the centre of communism, the communists said Hun Sen is [sic] a liberal. In France, the liberal place, they say Hun Sen is a communist. What should I do? Whatever you say, Hun Sen is a Cambodian; he does things the Cambodian way. Only the Cambodian people can boss Hun Sen around."


Challenging the People's Decision

Even before the votes had all been counted, the CPP sought to overturn the decision. It announced at a Phnom Penh news conference called the week after voting began that unless the UN agreed to by-elections in four provinces where it claimed "irregularities", the CPP would not accept the outcome of the elections.

Party spokesman, Sok An, cited six points of contention, claiming that UNTAC had breached an "understanding". Initially, he was unwilling to provide further details. He clearly expected journalists to report his claims without question. When pressed by reporters, Sok An claimed that UNTAC had agreed to admit political party representatives to "safe havens" where votes were being held prior to counting. When reporters demanded specific proof of "irregularities", he reported one "serious incident" where he claimed a FUNCINPEC official had been admitted. This represented one alleged breach. "Give us proof not just claims!" a reporter shouted.

Sok An further claimed that Cambodian born UNTAC electoral staff had been soliciting votes. This claim was not substantiated. He also claimed UN seals on ballot boxes had been broken and the special ink used to stop people voting twice did not work. Sok An reported that ballot papers had also been seen falling from UNTAC truck number 5451. This totalled four alleged breaches, still short of the six claimed.

"Has there been electoral fraud?" Sok An was asked by a BBC reporter.

"Yes," he replied.

"Who is responsible?" he was asked.

"We don't know," Sok An replied to groans.

Reporters present indicated disbelief that UNTAC would or could rig the election. As Japanese journalists came to blows as they grabbed at the multi lingual news releases, the consensus among their European colleagues was that the Cambodian People's Party was trying to subvert the election even before counting was over. The Melbourne Age's Lindsay Murdoch, an otherwise outspoken critic of UNTAC, was succinct. "Sok An was talking bullshit," Murdoch said as he walked out of the news conference. Veteran British correspondent, James Pringle, said such complaints at this stage indicated "trouble to come."

The above article was written in 1997, and was originally posted to the bit.listserv.seasia-l mailing list.

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