Strongman Hun Sen

strongman Hun Sen

Strongman: The Extraordinary Life of Hun Sen, (Harish C. Mehta and Julie B. Mehta), published by Marshall Cavendish Editions in 2013.

I’m reviewing this because Hun Sen is so important to Cambodia, but I haven’t actually read it (I promise to do so in a month or two), so this will be a review of reviews.

Over on Goodreads, Khem Yuos panha says: “If you know much about Cambodia already, I guess you will find it funny.” That’s the complete review. Khem’s favourite books (Goodreads lets you list your favourite books) include Hayek’s “The Road To Serfdom”, David Chandler’s “History of Cambodia”, and Paul Collier’s “The Bottom Billion”.

Also on Goodreads is Julian Haigh. He says: “Terribly biased … poor writing … the only book on one of the world’s longest reigning leaders … not available from street vendors in Phnom Penh ….” Haigh also says, and I find this intriguing: “Getting to know his character and even insecurities from this book, provide a valuable understanding of the Cambodian situation.” So the book lays bare Hun Sen’s character and insecurities?

Over on Amazon, D. Jameson notes that this is a revised version of a book first published ten years ago. “The original version was not earth shattering but the revised one is a huge disappointment. I cannot see why anyone would want to read it, much less spend money to purchase it. For anyone looking to find relevant information on contemporary Cambodia and its leader this is a big let down.”

The Cambodia Daily reviewed it when it came out, under the headline “In Praise of a Strongman“. The reviewer says that Marshall Cavendish rushed the revision out to to be on sale for the September 2013 elections. “the book fails to present a thorough exploration of Cambodia’s ‘Strongman,’ offering instead an idealized portrait of the prime minister written by two enthusiastic fans.” From the passages quoted in the Daily, the book seems to be based on the sort of thing you’d expect from North Korea – just substitute Kim’s name: “Giving little thought to his personal comforts, Hun Sen worked through breaks. He would not eat dinner at a fixed time, refusing to leave office until all the papers had been read, discussed and signed.”

But this is not North Korea, and so senior statesman Hun Sen has the chance to explain politics to rookie president Barak Obama: ““A talented and experienced negotiator, Hun Sen explained to Obama the harsh realities of life in Cambodia.”

The Daily’s review has this line, which I much admire: “The Mehtas say in the book’s introduction that Mr. Hun Sen did not ask to see their manuscript prior to publication, which they were free to write as they saw fit. His trust in them was justified.”

The most thorough review is from an unnamed “correspondent” at Asia Sentinel: pretty much like the others, but he gives a few details that make me really want to read this book – like this, describing divine signs eminating from a tree on the birth of Hun Sen’s son and apparent successor-to-be, Hun Manet: “[T]he light from the tree, being only about 70 meters away, bathed their home in silvery bursts at the time when Bun Rany gave birth to Manet.” Read the whole review, it’s very good.

This, by the way, is Harish Mehta’s Wikipedia page: it seems he’s written some quite well-regarded works on the press in Cambodia. I wish he’d read this article from the Economist. But it seems we still await a truly useful biography of the man who, for good and ill, has shaped the Cambodia we see today.