Cambodia’s Hun Sen is Vitrolic and Volatile

Participant - World Economic Forum on East Asia 2010

Last year, 2.06 million foreigners visited Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, the global Mecca of backpackers, with the cost of entry at $20 USD per day and $60 for one week, which turned the ancient Khmer temple remains into an El Dorado.

In the same year, thousands of Cambodians still live with the legacy of Pol Pot, landmines, abject poverty, Prime Minister Hun Sen, the perpetual “shit on a stick” flavor of corrupt Third World leader that the world can’t seem to get enough of that people have mistaken for the “vanilla” standard.

Take a moment to consider that Cambodia is on the bucket list of every global backpacker and volunteer worker, for much of the reconstruction and development in the post-Pol Pot world comes not from Governmental initiative, but from a flood of NGOs (and some scams pretending to be furthering some cause of the day for the hipster activist) picking up the slack where the Government itself can’t (and it can’t do a hell of a lot even in its Khmer Rouge tribunals), and a lot of the money comes from tourism all over the place from Preah Vihear to Angkor Wat and Tuol Sleng, amongst many sites glorified in travel narratives and documentaries. Ask yourselves: where does Hun Sen and the Cambodian Government fit into all of this?

So far, it’s done a good job of allowing foreigners to own apartments and condominium units but not land, while forcing evictions on its own people on behalf of big businesses (even harassing, violently beating, and jailing protesters and other outspoken critics for this confiscation); has sought to speed through Khmer Rouge tribunals by narrowing the definition of “victim” to shut down civil party applications to present evidence in cases; and has used criminal defamation and incitement laws to intimidate critics who hadn’t been jailed, threatened, or beaten.

Amidst all this lunacy, Pol Pot’s face remains only as a reminder to the average Khmer that the Kingdom definitely has been through worse before. But it also could be much better without Hun Sen’s bile-dripping tendrils in every money pot throughout the country.

With 25 years of rule and publicly-stated ambition to continue, Hun Sen looks to continue the trend of allowing foreign money in and kicking democratic principles and human rights out. At the very least, his reputation of consistency speaks volumes and saves on campaign costs.

A palpable point to consider is with all the activists and celebrities with a vexed interest in Cambodia, is why doesn’t the Kingdom have its own version of Burma’s (Myanmar’s) Suu Kyi? Actually, it does, with Sam Rainsy, who has been sentenced in absentia on arbitrary charges for his role as an opposition party leader. Yet somehow, his name is less of a pneumonic and memetic presence in comparison. One probable reason is that he has protested against Vietnamese demarcation of territory between itself and Cambodia in 2009, so there’s less of a David and Goliath narrative when (if) he’s talked about since many of Cambodia’s neighbors are more than happy to make use of the loose aforementioned land laws for business–something that the Government has some bargaining power with which Burma/Myanmar did not have while the ruling military junta was extremely isolated in its governance and the sanctions in place against it.

While Cambodia continues to be the allegorical snake eating its own tail, the good news is that there are still plenty of volunteer opportunities and that cheap vacations there are a good alternative to other countries in the region, even if trickle-down economics aren’t noted for being a factor in its development and recover (again, bile-dripping tendrils!).

photo credit: World Economic Forum via photopin cc

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About JohnnyC

Johnny C is a self-described Accidental Asian American: born in California and raised in Hong Kong and Manila, he spends his days traveling as a freelancer for various NGOs in development and human rights. An idealist and adventurer, his travels are both for work and fun, while sharing stories through his pictures, videos, and writing. When he's not dance-walking to indie rock songs on his iPod in cities around the world, he's usually got himself engrossed in a science fiction novel traversing the portals of reality.
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