PHNOM PENH: Cambodian strongman Hun Sen lashed out at Western governments for pushing “democracy and human rights” on his country, capping off a tumultuous political year with a fiery speech on Saturday.
The 66-year-old prime minister has ruled Cambodia for more than three decades, and has tilted the country strongly toward China in recent years in exchange for its generous founding for infrastructure and few complaints on human rights issues.
His Cambodian People’s Party government won another five-year term in July following elections that critics condemned as a sham, with the European Union threatening to revoke duty-free access for Cambodian goods.
Cambodia is now a one-party state, with the CPP holding all 125 seats in parliament, after the Supreme Court dissolved the main opposition party.
But Hun Sen remained defiant on Saturday as he inaugurated a monument with carvings showcasing his government’s achievements.
“Don’t make war by using what is called democracy and human rights, in which democratic countries used to make the mistake of supporting Lon Nol’s coup,” he said in a speech to thousands of officials.
Lon Nol’s US-backed regime was ousted by the ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge in 1975, the start of four years of horror as Cambodians were forced to live on farming communes, endure hard labour, and were tortured and murdered if they were suspected of plotting against leader Pol Pot.
Hun Sen was a former Khmer Rouge cadre who defected and had a role in toppling the genocidal regime in 1979, although the US later sought to keep the ousted Khmer Rouge at the table in the United Nations.
“You as a democratic country … supported Pol Pot, who used to kill people with no regard for respecting human rights,” Hun Sen said, without naming the US. “You supported them to keep a seat at the UN.”
The monument Hun Sen inaugurated on Saturday commemorates the end in 1998 of the threat from the communist Khmer Rouge movement, which ruinously ruled the country in the late 1970s and then carried on a guerrilla war.
Located just north of Phnom Penh, it is dedicated to what Hun Sen called his “Win-Win Policy”, under which the last two top Khmer Rouge leaders surrendered in December 1998, eliminating the group as a political force and security threat.
Hun Sen, in his supreme military commander’s uniform of a five-star general, said in a two-hour speech that he had “joined with other leaders and the people to turn our pitiful soil that used to be a killing zone into a safe land”.
But the monument’s highlighting the activities of Hun Sen makes clear that it is also a celebration of his legacy. The base of the 54-metre-tall structure has sculpted panels depicting various scenes in his life, including him sitting in a circle of villagers eating rice, leading a group of soldiers out of a forest and lecturing in front of a blackboard.
In his nationally televised speech to a crowd that officials said numbered 40,000, Hun Sen said the peace he helped achieve in 1998 helped unite the country “for the first time ever in its history”, and brought peace and economic prosperity.
“Before, mothers often worried about their sons going to war, wives often worried about their husbands going to war and children often worried about their fathers going to war, but in the last 20 years there is no fear about war and people who used to have to evacuate themselves from fighting now don’t need to move anywhere, and need not have a bunker under their homes to shelter in, either,” he said.
Hun Sen’s “Win-Win Policy” allowed most members of the Khmer Rouge to be incorporated into the military and bureaucracy in exchange for giving up the fight and defecting.