A cohabitation government was formed with Prince Norodom Ranariddh of the royal Funcinpec Party as First Prime Minister and Hun Sen as second.
Prince Ranariddh tapped into the wealth of support commonly reserved for his father and the agreement was only struck after King Sihanouk intervened and sponsored negotiations. The King also bestowed on Hun Sen the title of “Samdech”, meaning “Lord”.
But the alliance was a disaster from the start. Hun Sen used his forces to oust Ranariddh in 1997 and won violence-marred elections a year later. In similar fashion, Hun Sen rounded up the Khmer Rouge, amid mass defections, and finally ended decades of war in late 1998.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Only then could the marathon efforts to put Pol Pot's surviving henchmen on trial for war crimes begin.
Over the next decade Hun Sen’s political opponents were handled with ruthless efficiency, while the prime minister maintained a public face of respectability, as peace took root. Opposition leader Sam Rainsy still lives in self-imposed exile in France.
During this period, Hun Sen ended illegal television broadcasts by pornography channels. In routine crackdowns on the capital's risqué nightlife, he ordered women to wear dresses with hems below the knees. Bars were closed and at times he even banned Western music and dance.
Hun Sen holds the UN responsible for introducing AIDS into Cambodia during the early 1990s and is prone to exaggerating his golf handicap. More than 300 schools bear his name and he loathes being referred to as a former Khmer Rouge cadre. Like many others, he had little choice but to join.
The Push for Strategic Influence
In recent years, Hun Sen has played a rough game of international diplomacy. He has pushed Cambodia firmly within China’s sphere of influence, providing a buffer between U.S. ally Thailand and Vietnam, a traditional enemy of both Cambodia and China.
He recently signed a military deal with Beijing. The Asahi Shimbun reported that "Cambodia will use part of a $195 million loan from China to buy 12 of its military helicopters and boost its tiny fleet…"
This was not quite what Western nations had in mind when they first reappeared in Cambodia alongside the UN with generous offers of aid. However, Hun Sen says he tires of Western carping over Cambodia’s human rights record and claims Chinese aid and soft loans arrive with no strings attached.
That is questionable. Last year, as Phnom Penh took its turn as chair of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), Cambodia acquiesced on regional unity and backed Beijing over its stand on the South China Sea.
This split ASEAN like never before and brought Cambodia into direct opposition with fellow members the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei, which have competing maritime claims with China in the disputed seas.
Such a stand raised Cambodia’s diplomatic profile but proved costly in terms of relations with its nearest neighbors, prompting reminders that the last time China held such sway over Cambodian foreign policy was during the dark days of the Khmer Rouge.
As a result, Cambodia is walking a political tightrope. This has the added dimension of Washington’s rebalancing of power into East Asia. Further complicating matters is the record of Hun Sen’s government, which includes long-standing accusations of corruption and excessive use of violence. Indeed former King Sihanouk had long charged that the government’s addiction to easy money had made Cambodia dependent on donors.
Hun Sen’s greatest asset — as even his opponents acknowledge -– was that he secured what this country needed most–peace. But Cambodia’s dark past is now consigned to the history books. If Hun Sen truly is in control then he needs to combat corruption, end the culture of impunity and punish those who have committed horrendous crimes of their own in more recent years.