Interview about Cambodian Cables and Politics

ankor-wattThe following interview was conducted with a Cambodian American that the interviewer knows personally as someone who has written extensively on Cambodian issues and is a very active member of the Cambodian community in the United States and elsewhere. The interviewee asked to remain anonymous.

The interviewee has seen two Cambodian wars in the 1970s and 1980s, and the 1997 coup, and returned to Cambodia to help it transition under UN led elections in the mid 1990s.

*Image Angkor Wat by the author

Alexa O’Brien: For purpose of our discussion I would like for you to paint a broad stroke on Cambodia politics over the course the cable release, between 1994 to 2010. It covers a lot of ground, which of course we cannot completely cover.

Source: Okay.

Perhaps you could start off by giving me a general picture of the structure and climate right now in present day Cambodia.

What I can tell right you now about Cambodia is that the country, under the current leadership…the current ruling party hasn’t changed as much, compared to what you and I saw, what we knew way back ten or fifteen years ago…

What I am trying to say is that when Westerners think of Cambodia is a more developing country, perhaps they look at what they see in the city. But if you go out ten or fifteen kilometers away from the city life is totally different for average Cambodians…

…and the political structure is the same and elections are just a way of telling the world that Cambodia is open…because we have regularly scheduled elections…it doesn’t matter whether the elections are free and fair…

So, they have to show the world that they are making progress, but in fact the substantive change is not there to be found.

How would you characterize the development of US foreign policy toward Cambodia between 94 through 2011?

The US Policy so far has been to befriend the Cambodian government with the same prime minister [ Hun Sen ] since the 1980s actually, because Cambodia has somewhat proved to the US that it is helping the US fight against a possible perceived terrorist threat…

…because Cambodia has a very tiny population of Muslims, the Cham. So, because of that sense of cooperation, the US seems to allow the current leader [ Hun Sen ] to do whatever he wants to do.

…and since 1994, we know that the current prime minister has been trying to grab power, but the US didn’t do anything until 1997, then there was a coup d’├ętat.

Prior to the war on terror there was the war on drugs…and you can see this in the cables, which reference the exchange of training between the US government, or the DEA, and the Cambodia task forces around the war on drugs…similarly also with the war on terror…is their a similarity between these two approaches on the part of the US in terms of foreign policy?

The war on drugs started off when Cambodia was considered a transit point, and perhaps the US just wanted the Cambodia government to do something to stop the flow of drugs to other parts of the world. And, in fact prior to the coup in 1997…there were two factions at the time…the first prime minister was headed by the royalist party [FUNCINPEC] and the second prime minister…who is the current prime minister now…belongs to the CPP party.

The general…who was at that time a two star general of the police force at the interior ministry…is reported to be a close associate of the prime minister, Hun Sen, was involved in growing marijuana in the southern part of the country…and then the government was trying to show the US that it was doing something.

So the prime minister took a helicopter to the ceremony to burn…to destroy the cannabis. In fact, they did not allow journalists to go deep inside the fields…the farm…to witness the whole burning ceremony.

So…there is no way we can confirm that the farm still existed…and you know the smaller portion of the marijuana was destroyed.

And, there were some efforts to show the West that Cambodia was doing something about drugs, but at the same time there were been reports of high level officials involvement in drug facilitation trafficking…several.

So what did they do about it? Nothing. And, we have reports by the State Department of human trafficking as well that have occurred at the same time.

Have you read the cables?

I have read some parts about what happened…Hun Sen reportedly says the faction rumors about the…

…assassination attempt?

Assassination attempt…yes.

He didn’t ask the CPP minister of interior to investigate…instead he asked the royalist aligned minister to investigate the rumors. So there is a distrust within the CPP party…and then you have this Senate President, Chea Sim, who is also the CPP president, the Cambodia People’s Party president, asked the foreign minister, Hor Namhong, to try to persuade Hun Sen to not go after or punish the coup plotters…

…then the minister didn’t deliver the message. So, you have everything in the making that the CPP is not really a one voice…

…there are some officials within the party who are not happy with the way Hun Sen deals with the affairs of the state…or runs the country…

…but, there is nothing they can do, and the US doesn’t bother to do anything because…all right as long as it poses no direct threat to national interest here then we haven’t done anything.

Would it be fair to say that the US’s policy towards Cambodia is shaped by Chinese relationship with Cambodia and the fact that there is another superpower in the region that has a very strong relationship with Cambodia?

I don’t see it the Chinese factor has anything to do with our policy. If our policy is shaped by national interest…strategic interest or such then it doesn’t matter whether it’s the Chinese or the Soviet Union…

We witnessed way back in the eighties, when the Soviet Union was trying to expand its sphere of influence…the US did support the guerilla movement to fight back.. against the proxy war…I mean the Soviet proxy war using Vietnam to invade Cambodia in the name…to get rid of the Khmer rouge…the killing fields…Pol Pot.

We did that way back in the eighties. Why? At the time the Chinese did help the Khmer Rouge of course and we didn’t do anything…went along, because we viewed that the Soviet Union was a bigger threat to the US allies there in the region.

Now there is no…there is no war in that part of the world…so the Chinese came into Cambodia to business just like any other corporations…but the businesses in Cambodia from China are state owned…it is different from businesses from the West.

Cambodia…it is not the that the US knows that the Chinese presence is there…but what can they do…what are they doing…nothing.

Lets talk about influence in terms of China vis a vis the United States. You just said that the fiscal relationships between China and Cambodia create state owned businesses…what kind of US corporate interests are predominately in Cambodia?

Right now we have Chevron Oil company that acquired the exploration rights in the Gulf of Thailand. I don’t remember exactly what blocks the Cambodia government signed the agreement with Chevron.

We have another perhaps US based company as well…I believe, ConocoPhillips , is signed to get into that too…

…and Mobil…but I don’t know how much shares they own there…but Chevron is more predominant there in terms of oil business in term of oil exploration. Other than that…I haven’t seen any major US corporations coming into Cambodia to set up more of long term business relationship or business operations there.

The Cambodian judicial system has always seemed to struggle with corruption. The land right issues for rural populations, who after Khmer Rouge were ousted from parts of the Cambodia countryside, and legislation in name only set up to allow Cambodians who had essentially inhabited certain pieces of land to actually claim it as their own…but corruption within the judicial system prevents many average Khmer from possessing an actual title.

Currently there are some skirmishes or protests in rural areas of Cambodia over the forced eviction. Can you tell me more about that…?

Forced eviction is almost a common occurrence. There have been reports by local human rights organizations, and also overseas-based human rights groups trying to protests the government’s actions.

Yes. The Khmer Rouge destroyed everything. There is no proof to show who owns what in Cambodia…but again it is the duty of the Cambodian government to try to make sure that its people…its indigenous people have a place to live and a means to make a living…

The problems is that they try to use the term ‘national development’ at the expense of their own people, they give economic land concession to foreign companies.

So many of these businesses are from China, South Korea, Vietnam, Japan, and even Australia.

They try to occupy some parts of Cambodia…where they have I believe…I suspect that they believe there is some mining potential…like in the north-eastern part of the county…the northern part of the country where gold is spotted…and in the eastern part of the country where bauxite is reportedly discover there.

[See also]

So what happened is the people…the indigenous people cannot have a place there to even have a small house to live…because they have to make room for these foreign companies to do business…

…and when you talk about investment you think that…ok well that should bring jobs and everything else to local people…not really…not really.

They destroy 100 year and 200 year old trees to make room for their mining operationsand if they can’t find anything…the land is deforested and they pull out…

…and the local people have no place to live on, because these people…eighty percent of the population are farmers and they live on what they can find from forest products like tree sap…and things like that.

Now they cannot go into those forests anymore…because the government has given land concession including the forests to foreign owned companies.

When the people try to rise up with the help of some local human rights groups to petition the government, then they are met with police force trying to disperse them.

So they cannot even reach to the court in some cases.

How can Cambodia overcome the corruption within the judicial system?

The only person who can change things in Cambodia right now is the prime minister himself.

He controls everything or at least…he has all the power. He can do anything he wants to, if he has the will to do that.

But the thing is that these corrupt institutions are there to support him as well…because it is more like mutualism. You blink and make some money and I’ll share with you. I support you. So no matter what…indirectly or directly the prime minster benefits from this corrupt system.

Everybody knows…the prime minister knows…that the judges takes bribes before ruling on any particular case…let alone a petition from the people who face eviction.

He knows that…but what did we do. He says, “Okay, we will try to get rid of this corruption in the judicial system.” Yet what he says is one thing, and what he does is different thing, because these people [judges] support him.

This seems to also spill into another institutions…the press…and the cables do cover quite clearly the defamation and libel cases. Can you tell me more about the situation and circumstances around the defamation and libel cases around against the press?

Back in the eighties and nineties and early 2000…the government…the authorities dealt with the press in a very brutal way.

If anyone wrote an article that was critical of the government, or an individual, or a public servant or official…he or she was going to face death threat.

Now…journalists who are critical of the government perhaps face sanctions of some kind…

So today it is a matter of form, “Okay this is the rule of law. Everything has to go through the legal process,” but these people…corrupt officials with blood on their hands…they have made the law and they said, “If you criticized we are not going to shoot you anymore.” Of course, I am not quoting them. What I am trying to present to you is that if you criticize, “We will take you to court.”

And believe me if you are going to go to court, you are going to lose. Because the courts…the judge listens to somebody, who is going to telephone him or call him, “Look you have to decide the way I want you to decide.” And, it is a fact…and almost everybody knows in Cambodia that the judge takes direction and bribes.

[NB See in particular 01PHNOMPENH1740]

Lets talk about the Khmer Rough as it relates to the current situation in Cambodia. Mainly officials like Hun Sen were former Khmer Rouge, and the situation, from an outsiders perspective, seems a delicate and complicated one…since many Cambodians are responsible for the acts of genocide against their own countrymen in Cambodia’s not to distant past.

I will go over the history a little bit and the background of the Khmer Rouge rise to power and the demise of the US backed republican government…then also the Vietnamese invasion in 1979 and of course the Peace Accord in Paris in 1991 that gave rise to what we see today.

The Khmer Rouge in the 1970s fought along side the Vietcong.

The Vietnamese communist guerillas fought against the US presence in South Vietnam, and the Vietnamese trained the Khmer Rouge to fight against the US backed Khmer republican under General Lon Nol.

You can play the blame again, you know, “The war started because Lol Nol lost a coup d’├ętat to depose Prince Sihanouk, the popular prince of Cambodia…or the other side can say the reason Lon Nol overthrew Prince Sihanouk then was because his close alliance relationship with the North Vietnamese guerillas, the Vietcong, fighting against the Americans troops in South Vietnam.

But the fact is that the Vietcong had its presence in Cambodia helping the Khmer Rogue until it got to power in 1975.

Hun Sen and others were part of that war against the West and also the government of Cambodia, the pro West-pro American government in Cambodia.

The US backed government regime lost. The Khmer Rouge took power.

Then, within the Khmer faction you have pro Chinese elements and also pro Vietnamese elements.

The pro Chinese headed by Pol Pot was not happy with the way the Vietnamese dealt with the border issues, territorial disputes, and things like that. So, Pol Pot in an interview said that he wanted North Vietnam to work closely to solve the border issue once and for all.

The Vietnamese insisted that, “We are winners in this part of the world, so lets be friends and brothers, comrades as we used to be. Why start talking about this border issue and things like that, right now? Lets focus on rebuilding the reconstruction after the war. “

But, the Pol Pot camp or the pro American camp – pro republican Cambodia, anti communist Cambodian…they were suspicious of the Vietnamese. This is more like their historical enemy.

So, when the Khmer leaders (Cambodian leaders) kept talking about border issues…the territorial issues, which irritate the Vietnamese leaders…

…that got them into intense disputes and at the end they split into two camps, and then they start purging the pro – Chinese…the Pol Pot camp suspecting there fellow comrade and they started purging people and that is why Hun Sen and others fled to Vietnam.

And then they asked the Vietnamese to return and get rid of the Khmer Rouge. The Vietnamese installed a government, the Peoples Republic of Kampuchea, later known as the State of Cambodia, and also its political party CPP, the Cambodian peoples party.

Its original name was the Cambodian People’s Revolutionary Party, something like that. So they got rid of the word revolutionary. They just kept CPP, Cambodian People’s Party.

So many of them who are in power right now are former Khmer Rouge period.

And, the international community got together in 1991, on October 23, 1991 to sign the Paris Peace Accord hoping to bring peace to end the war in Cambodia…

…but they did not get further as to how to keep Cambodia safe from its neighbors, giant neighbors…that is why we have problems right now with Thailand.

But again I can tell you that the problem with Thailand right now is just one way of diverting attention away from the more critical problems of eastern borders…Vietnam.

Some people have characterize the Thai motivation as being a way of sort of nationalizing the Thai people around a common enemy who are facing their own internal struggles. How would you characterize the Cambodian strategy for diversion that you mentioned?

Well the Cambodians, as a rule have more to worry about in terms of losing their identity, their land, their ethnicity, then just losing the temple on the border.

Cambodia has more to worry than just the temple alone. We have how many miles of borders with Vietnam, and a lot of Cambodian people…including the opposition are more concerned about a secret deal made between the current government, the CPP, with Vietnam concerning the territorial boundary [web page cache].

They fear that they are going to lose more territory to Vietnam than just Thailand.

Each country has its own interest to look after, and for Cambodia, the Cambodians also have to look after…the supreme interest is the border with its historical enemies, and Cambodians fear greater danger of losing the land to Vietnam than it does to Thailand.

So, whatever we see happening in Thailand…internal problems and they try to use the border issue with Cambodia to perhaps raise popularity.

But it is not just part of Thailand. Cambodia under Hun Sen had made a deal in 2005, 2006…if you look at the document with the former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra…so these two guys are business oriented.

They would have a lot at stake in terms of profit sharing, so they negotiated something: “You give me the temple…don’t make any claim to that temple and I will concede some part of the overlapping areas under the sea, so you can explore for oil so these kinds of things,” or something like that.

These deals should not have been made in the first place…but somehow because of the relationship between these business oriented prime ministers and their cronies, they got into a deal.

There was a deal signed memorandum of some sort between the two prime ministers on both sides. Some Cambodians say, “This is not right. Why do we have to give away like this part of our land to somebody else?” But the Thai do the same thing, “Why do we have to concede the Preah Vihear Temple.”

This started with the two prime ministers in the first place…that got all the Cambodians into this situation. A lot of people don’t know about that.

What is the source?

I have different documents. It’s memorandum between the two prime ministers. I got it from my sources in France, who follow the border issues closely, and they have almost just about any discussion minutes between Cambodia and Vietnam, and Cambodia and Thailand.

Also, regarding corruption in the judicial system that we began to speak about before: everybody knows it. The US and other countries, and especially donor countries from the European Union and Canada.

They know that the judicial system doesn’t work. It is corrupt.

There is no way you can have a fair hearing of any kind. We keep demanding, but every year donors gather in Phnom Penh and ask the government, “We need you to do this, and we need you to do that.” And, the government says, “Yeah we will do it.”

But after they leave, just like one American author Joel Brinkley stated in his book,Cambodia’s Curse. After donors leave, everything going back the same way.

The children that grew under the Khmer Rouge are middle aged now. Do you think that their experience has an effect on the potentiality of civic society in Cambodia?

In terms of…?

In terms of the expectations as to what they are entitled to…the capabilities of civic and civil society…I am not being disrespectful or disparaging…it just seems to my mind that a whole generation of children and now middle aged adults have grown up under a very oppressive system…I wonder if it adds an element of challenge to creating the kind of civic society that can speak to corruption, and engenders one which perhaps lessens people’s expectations about what is even possible.

The Khmer Rouge children…we have to maybe separate them into two separate groups: the Khmer Rouge children whose parents were Khmer Rouge cadres soldiers…perhaps they wouldn’t go back to where their parents were…but still they are struggling to make ends meet…

Perhaps they do see the society right now…well way back in their days they didn’t have electricity…but now they have electricity…so they might think, “Okay, life is so much better now”…but still they have to compete with the city life, the city people, because most of them grew up in the agrarian part of society way out in the countryside…so its hard for them to get integrated, assimilated so easily.

But when they see corruption, injustice in society they would perhaps want to do something but they cannot. They cannot…because right now it is as oppressive as it was. It is just taking a different form.

You mentioned to me the other day that it seems that Cambodia has had such a tragic history in the seventies, that when outsiders see events unfolding in Cambodia, where people may be murdered or oppressed, no one blinks an eye…

I think that what you remember is me trying to paraphrase Joel Brinkley, the author ofCambodia’s Curse and New York Times award winning journalist, who said in an interview with an Australian Radio host Stephen Long, on Thursday, July the 14th…he said that if the world set the standard…when it comes to Cambodia…if the world knows only the Khmer Rouge, lets put it that way, and whatever else happens is nothing because the Khmer Rouge is so bad.

The Khmer Rouge killed a quarter of a million of its own people, so if it is just a few hundred here and there starve to death by the current government, by Hun Sen, like for example in land eviction…no place to live…they are homeless…what is wrong with that. Just a couple of hundreds.

Half a million. This is the standard that the world has set for Cambodia. Compared to what happened to the Khmer rouge…so whatever happened today is nothing.

Right. It’s awful. Tell me about Hor Nam Hong.

Hor Nam Hong, right now is foreign minister. His full title is deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs and international cooperation. Hor Nam Hong was a diplomat under different regimes and under Pol Pot’s regime he returned and he was made a re-education camp leader in Phnom Penh…a former English School

Does he dispute that? [This interview took place prior to the July 22, 2011 articleCambodia protests over US cable’s Khmer Rouge claim ]

He doesn’t really dispute that. In fact, he simply says, “Okay he was simply forced to do what he did. If he didn’t, he would have been killed.”

So, that is an excuse, but a lot of people who happened to be there at that camp under his leadership there, complained that he reported to a higher authority about whatever the inmate was doing in that camp, and a lot of people died under his watch.

There is a cable from 2002, Reference ID 02PHNOMPENH1361. I actually want to quote from it. It says here:



On Hor Nam Hong. He won a case in a French court against Prince Sihanouk.

He won the first round on the opposition party leader’s claim that Hor Nam Hong was a former Khmer Rouge camp chief. And then the French appeals court ruled that the opposition party leader had a case.

It was simply stating the case… it was simply stating the fact that Hor Nam Hong was in fact, camp chief.

I am not familiar with the details of the cable you cite. What I do know is that according to reports, Cheng Snguon, is a justice minister and he died. His son Chem Widhya, was appointed to the UN Ambassador for a while, and now I think he works somewhere else. So, we have heard that Cheng Snguon, the late minister of justice did resent Hor Nam Hong for his action at that camp.

There are so many people we could cover in the cables, there is King Sihanouk, and there is Rainsy…

Yes, Prince Sihanouk he was head of state in the 1950s and 1960s. He abdicated in 1955 during the First Kingdom, and in 1970 he was deposed by the pro American republican group of Generals actually, and he was made prisoner during the Khmer Rouge years in his own palace, and according to authors like Dr. Stephen Morris in his book, Why Vietnam Invaded Cambodia: Political Culture and the Causes of War, the Vietnamese sent a commando to try to take him from the royal palace, but the Khmer Rouge dispatched their own commando strike force to get rid of the Vietnamese commando.

So, finally the Chinese sent a plane to take him out of Phnom Penh within, I think , the last day of two the Vietnamese forces actually entered the capital city.

So, yeah, then in the early 1980s he was again invited to head the resistance movement. He has had multiple titles in his…

And he retired in 2006?

Yes. He retired and he wanted his son to be the next King.

And Sam Rainsy?

Yes. Sam Rainsy is the son of a renowned, though perhaps not well liked by the royal family back then…a politician actually…his name was Sam Sary.

So, Sam Rainsy was educated in France. he joined the FUNCIPEC, the royalist movement back in the 1980s.

After the 1993, general UN sponsored election, he was appointed minister of finance.

And, he was trying to deal with the massive illegal logging by Hun Sen’s cronies, business affiliates, but he almost got killed by the anarchic groups operating the illegal logging in some parts of the country.

So, I think his relentless effort to tackle corruption, loss of national state revenue, made him somebody disliked by a lot of people, because it hurt other people’s business, personal interests, and things like that, so they demoted him.

The royalist party working unison with the CPP party to fire him.


Actually so far the US approach to the Muslim community in Cambodia has been successful, and some US officials have asked me, “Is there anything that we should do more to perhaps do more?” I said, “Do not abandon them.” Muslims are abandoned by the central government in a lot of places: in the Philippines…in Thailand.

When you are disconnected, then anybody can come in and persuade you to do whatever they want you to do. So, I would say, with them, just don’t make them hopeless.

They have programs to give some sewing machines, and vocational training…things like that. It works fine.

Thank you very much for your time today.

Of course, anytime, Alexa. Nice talking to you.