A Cambodian Tragedy: Lessons for Today?

Excerpt: Benny Widyono discusses the trial of Khmer Rouge leaders. (2 min., 28 sec.)

HONG KONG, June 15, 2010 - The domestic situation in Cambodia under Prime Minister Hun Sen is stable, according to Benny Widyono, the former United Nations Ambassador to Cambodia who gave the Asia Society Hong Kong Center an assessment of the current political situation there.

Hun Sen is one of the key leaders of the Cambodian People's Party, which has governed  since the Vietnamese-backed overthrow of the Khmer Rouge in 1979. "His government is very stable," Widyono said. "He has an estimated 3,000-men bodyguard. They get paid 300 dollars, while regular soldiers only get paid 30 dollars. He is very rich and can afford it. The bodyguard unit is really surrounding him if the regular army tries something else."

He noted that Hun Sen's son was currently being groomed to replace him. "He is very well-educated. He has a PhD in economics from New York University. He has a military degree from West Point. Hopefully he will be more benign. His son is head of intelligence services."

On military stability, Widyono commented, "I would say it is quite stable and the west would like to give him money and foreign aid and investors are coming. Our private equity fund raised 34 million dollars last year. The west has increased aid to Cambodia year after year. This year, it has one billion dollars of foreign aid. Western governments feel Hun Sen brings stability. Compared to Thailand and Malaysia, it is still a poor country but it is very stable. They are very friendly, they are very happy and optimistic. It is a country looking forward."

Cambodia, between 1969 and 1997, was plunged into chaos, turmoil and civil war culminating in the massacre by the Khmer Rouge of 1.7 million people. Liberation by the Vietnamese army did not end the suffering, as the UN continued for 11 years to recognize the exiled Khmer Rouge as the representative of Cambodia. A UN peacekeeping operation brought this anomaly to an end by holding elections in which a new coalition government was established between the Cambodian People's Party and the royalist Funcinpec party.

A retired UN civil servant, Widyono served in Cambodia for five years in the 1990s, first with the U.N. Transitional Authority and then as the U.N. Secretary-General's Political Representative.

Reported by Penny Tang, Asia Society Hong Kong Center