The Prime Minister and the lightning goddess


The thunder-ogre and the lightning-goddess – see here for the legend

I was once told off by a tuktuk driver for getting my Cambodian myths mixed up. I’d said that Eyso was a good guy. No, I was told, Eyso is a very bad guy! And so he is. He’s the god of thunder, engaged in perpetual battle with Moni Mekhala, the beautiful goddess of lightning. As they chase each other through the monsoon storm-clouds Eyso hurls his axe at Moni Mekhala, who deflects it with her magic crystal ball, causing thunder and lightning. The good guy I had in mind was someone else entirely by a similar name. I was embarrassed, of course, but the tuktuk driver forgave me: I was just a dumb foreigner, how could I be expected to know?

Apsara-Dancer-Fight1-1000x666Moni Mekhala-Ream Eyso features in the Classical Cambodian dance repertoire

Anyway, Prime Minister Hun Sen fed up with the opposition CNRP party saying he stole the 2013 election and that the Cambodian Red Cross discriminates between people on the basis of their political affiliation. Last Monday he faced off to CNRP leader Sam Rainsy and drew a line in the incense-ash:  Join me mano-a-mano down at the Preah Ang Doun Kar shrine on the Riverside, he said. We’ll each take an oath, and may lightning strike down the one who lies.

hun-sen-stooge-reutersPrime Minister Hun Sen of the ruling CPP – is that a smile?

Do any parties dare to swear with the CPP at the [Preah] Ang Dangker shrine?” he asked. “If the CPP stole the election, let all of the CPP die through bullets, lightning and everything. Who­ever was the liar, and made the wrong accusations will get the same—the lightning and everything.

Screen Shot 2015-06-11 at 3.12.52 PMOpposition leader Sam Rainsy – does he dare test trial by lightning?

Lightning is not a natural phenomenon in Cambodia. The gods agree – quite an amazing number of people get struck down each year. Does Hun Sen believe what he’s saying? I have no idea. There’s been some discussion on Khmer 440, where someone wisely observes that what the PM says is less important than who he’s talking to – do they believe it? My tuktuk driver certainly does.

100_0614The main image at Preah Ang Doung Kar – it’s called Vishnu though it’s not if you ask me, but nobody asks me. Oaths gentlemen please.

From a useful blog called Cambodia Monster. Interesting that the blogger calls Preah Ang Doung Kar “him,” though it’s strictly the name of the flagpole under which the shrine stands: “Sacred Royal Flagpole”

Postscript: Looks like it’s on. Sam Rainsy says he accepts the challenge, “though a vote recount would be more useful.” More useful, but less entertaining. Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, says this is a “strange” way to settle disputes. But Mao Pises, president of the Federation of Cambodian Intellectuals and Students, says e’s a Buddhist himself, “and, as you know, the Cambodian people who follow Buddhism believe our ancestors and especially our heroes and spirits have power here, and will kill or destroy those people who destroy our nation.”

Hun Sen’s Cambodia

HSCHun Sen’s Cambodia, by Sebastian Strangio (blog here), published by Yale University Press and Silkworm Books, will be available at Monument Books from 27 October. It’s an evocation and explanation of contemporary Cambodia, a country synonymous with its leader, Hun Sen.

The first half traces the history of the country from the end of the Khmer Rouge regime to the present; the second half investigates at the reality of life in and under what the author calls “the mirage on the Mekong.” Presiding over all is strongman-President Hun Sen, who has dominated the last three decades as Sihanouk dominated an earlier age.

Hun Sen was born into a comparatively well—off peasant family, the son of a former monk who left the Sangha to join the anti-French resistance, but the family lost their money and he was forced to become a temple-boy in Phnom Penh. This remains a very common pattern today, so common in fact that it makes me wonder which of my local temples might be sheltering Cambodia’s future leadership at this moment.

Hun-Sen-e1349252427677The young Hun Sen, early 1980s

  Exactly how the young Hun Sen became a communist – if indeed he ever did embrace the cause in any meaningful way – remains extremely murky. Sihanouk’s call for all patriotic Cambodians to join the anti-Lon Nol maquis following his overthrow in 1970 seems to been the catalyst, although nothing is certain. It’s clear, however, that he was a young man of great ability, rising to become a KR commander in the Eastern Zone before the Party’s collapse into self-destructive purges forced him to flee to Vietnam in 1997.

470_ap_hun_sen_091008Hun Sen now (AP photo)

In January 1979, aged just 26, he returned Cambodia’s new Foreign Minister. He impressed visitors with his intelligence, hard work, and uncanny ability to sail with the changing political winds. These abilities, and possibly a certain ruthlessness, enabled him to see off his decidedly less talented colleagues; by 1985 he was Prime Minister, a position he’s held ever since. (Strangio gives a fascinating account of how Pen Sovan, the first post-KR prime minister, tried to resist Vietnamese direction and ended up in a cell in Hanoi; Hun Sen in contrast made himself indispensable).


Cambodia in the mid-1980s was a tangle of patronage networks – the Khmer word is “strings”, conjuring up the not inappropriate image of a bowl of spaghetti. No one was better suited than Hun Sen to bring order to the chaos.

Patronage is deeply rooted in Cambodian culture, and always has been. Gifts are passed down and generate loyalty which then confirms the authority of the giver. The system is, of course, deeply destructive. “Government posts [are] valued according to their potential to generate income, while the power of higher officials depend[s] on their ability to distribute those positions.” The task of making himself the ultimate source of all influence and power was to occupy Hun Sen for the rest of his career, and still continues.

Cambodia Rolls RoyceRolls Royce dealership, Phnom Penh

Modern Cambodia has unquestionably benefitted from Hun Sen’s subtle approach to the age-old role of patronage boss. The country has an open market, a democratic constitution, and a vibrant civil society. Guns have just about disappeared off the streets (the average Cambodian runs a far lesser risk of being shot than does the average American), the press is freer than in many other countries in the region, foreign investment is booming, and the tourism and garment industries are diversifying employment opportunities.

cam-photo-front5Striking garment workers (photo by John Vink, Magnum)

If only the reality were so bright and shiny. Strangio gives Hun Sen his due – in 2004 one in two Cambodian’s lived in poverty, by 2011 the figure had dropped to one in five and falling – but as he makes clear, the commitment to Western ideas of the liberal society is both limited and pragmatic. Partly this is because Hun Sen has seen that the West’s talk of the virtues of freedom is hypocritical – these were the countries that kept Pol Pot in the United Nations and isolated Cambodia through the 1980s for their own cynical purposes. And partly, of course, they can’t afford to hand over the keys to the patronage machine.

power-to-the-peopleForcible eviction at Borei  Keila (Asiapundits)

And so it continues: land seizures in the provinces, “slum” clearances in the capital, unionists and other opponents shot dead or jailed, media taken over and controlled by those the elite can trust, a compliant judiciary, etc etc. Even the CNRP opposition offers no more than a change of faces, and Sam Rainsy’s racist Khmer chauvinism hardly seems like something to long for. Strangio’s book makes depressing reading.

Cambodian National Rescue Party2013 election (

And yet, for all this, he ends on a note of hope. Cambodia has not stood still for the last thirty years. A new generation has grown up, one more educated, more exposed to outside values, less willing to accept patronage politics and a society of inequality. The results were seen in the 2013 elections, when the CPP lost a massive number of seats, obviously to its own surprise. Cambodia is changing, but Hun Sen is not. We live in interesting times.

Power and Political Culture in Cambodia

Power and Political Culture in Cambodia (Trude Jacobsen and Martin Stuart-Fox, National University of Singapore, as a pdf download here) is an examination of how Cambodian culture thinks of power, whence it comes and how it goes. Does this sound like Cambodia?

The client/patron relationship is hierarchical, but obligations are mutual. The patron is the protector, sponsor, and benefactor of the client, and his greater wealth, power, or prestige enable him to help or do favors for the client. The client is usually, but not inevitably, of inferior social class..Benefits a patron might confer include legal representation in court, loans of money, influencing business deals or marriages, and supporting a client’s candidacy for political office or employment. In return, the client is expected to offer his services to his patron as needed.

i-claudius-patrick-stewart_5_l-1-_wide-8964c78b8fc127f2ece9037f297f853db476b3fe-s4-c85It’s actually ancient Rome, according to Wikipedia. (Pictured here is Patrick Stewart as Sejanus, commander of the Praetorian Guard, in the BBC mini-series I Claudius – he comes to a sticky end when he gets too big for his caligulas).

The patron possesses authority – omneach in Khmer or power, komlang. Such a man is a neak thom, “big person”. The first outward sign of his bigness are his wealth, as seen in his conspicuous houses and cars, his country house (apparently a must-have), his being seen at expensive restaurants and up-market nightclubs, and so on – the point being that he must not only be a wealthy man, he must be publicly seen to be such.

He will also have bunn sak, social status. This is shown through his possession of government and/or royal titles, a house near the house of the prime minister, his association with other persons of high status (including foreigners, who apparently are as good as a Rolex at a public event), and his immunity to the law. The highest neak thom can shoot someone dead in the presence of witnesses without fear of consequences, although this does test the extent of his bunn sak and should only be done if the outcome is assured.

The parking lots of the more expensive karaoke places, hotels and nightclubs in Phnom Penh are littered with shiny new Lexus, Mercedes and Audi four wheel drives sporting all manner of decoration stuffed toys, curtains, undercarriage lights in different colours but no license plates, because the owner of the car is so important that he or she does not have to conform to laws which apply to others. … Patrons at some popular Cambodian nightclubs are not permitted to sit in the upper gallery unless they are neak thom (and) Places usually frequented by a foreign clientele reserve space for neak thom (where) security personnel maintain an invisible barrier excluding other patrons.

The third quality of a neak thom is baramei, meaning charismatic powers of persuasion – Cambodians admire the ability to sway others through words alone. Sihanouk had it, Pol Pot had it, and Hun Sen has it. Paradoxically, the man who possesses baramei will be silent at social gatherings, because self-control is also admired, but when he speaks, all others fall silent.

Newsletter525_Narayana_clip_image002Whence comes greatness? Wealth and social rank and charisma are the result of bunn, the merit accumulated in previous lives through virtuous deeds. Since bunn, and not some accident of birth created the neak thom, he therefore has a moral right to his wealth and power. Some individuals possess so much power than bunn alone  can’t explain it – they must have inherited it, in a very personal sense, through the workings of reincarnation. Thus Sihanouk was thought to be the reincarnation of Jayavarman VII, and there’s a rumour that Hun Sen in a previous life was the legendary hero Sdech Kan. If reincarnation isn’t enough to explain the power of the powerful, there’s also magic – Hun Sen is also said to own a store of powerful koan kroach amulets, preserved fetuses that protect their owner from harm.

Bunn derives from anupheap, understanding, so that the man of power is also a man of wisdom, and wisdom derives from dhammapul, the laws of nature, so that the powerful hold power by virtue of the same forces that make apples fall down instead of up and cause winter to be cooler than summer. The powerful man will therefore see any challenge to his power as an attack on the natural order: Sam Rainsey is not just a political opponent, but an evil man to boot.

Power is expressed through khsae, strings of client/patron connections. The village farmer will have his village patron, who will have his patron in the district town, who will have his in the capital, who will be the client of a neak thom at the highest level. The traffic cop will share cash from motodop fines with his captain, the millionaire contractor will share a cut with the officials who put the contract for that road or bridge his way. In return the patron will protect his client from the law to the best of his ability, assist his children (or those of sub-clients) with employment, and attend weddings and other occasions where the presence of a great patron will increase the standing of the client among his own circle.

17821_07_NeakPean_bigthumbDonors talk about strengthening the institutions of the State in Cambodia. Forget it. Patron/client relations take the place of the State. In the early 19th century the Cambodians rebelled against the Vietnamese, not because of national feeling, but because the Vietnamese wanted to reform the tax collection in a way that undermined the client-patron relationship. Today the Cambodian elite resist the pressure of Western aid donors for greater transparency for the same reason. The flow of goods and services in a patronage-based system is through the client-patron tie, not the State.

All in all, a pretty depressing outlook. Here’s the nub of the concluding paragraph of the paper, in which the authors explain why Cambodians keep on voting for the status quo:

In the privacy of the voting booth people are free to register their displeasure with the CPP. But they won’t. And the reason they won’t is not because they cannot envisage better government or a more just society, nor because they have been duped and coerced into submission, but because of how they understand the nature of power. Cambodians accept that the well-oiled patronage network of the CPP that now extends throughout Cambodian society cannot be challenged. The ‘strings’ are too many and too strong. Moreover they converge on men … recognised as neak thom, whose personal claims to power rest solidly on a moral order … conceived as a law of nature. At the apex stands Hun Sen, who has risen in status from one among a number of neak thom to ‘bong thom’, ‘big brother’ to all Cambodians.


 The Bong of Bongs





Beyond Democracy In Cambodia

Screen Shot 2014-05-27 at 9.39.27 AMBeyond Democracy in Cambodia was published in 2009, but now seems a good time to draw attention to it, given the current interest in some quarters in the kingdom’s credentials. What follows is a summary of the main points as contained in this recent and excellent review by Virak Thun in New Mandala.

The basic idea is that around 1993 the international community wanted Cambodia to both reconstruct (reconstruct society, reconstruct the economy, reconstruct everything) and to become a liberal democracy. Only the first of these has happened. “International efforts to bring liberal democracy to the country have, one must conclude, hardly scratched the surface.” (Those are Virak Thun’s words).

  • The achievement of liberal democracy is highly unlikely in the predictable future, because of a political culture based on a deeply rooted patronage system and the absence of prerequisites for democracy.
  • Elections are used to gain external legitimization rather than as a force for democracy.
  • The judiciary is incompetent, corrupt, and politically manipulated.
  • Democratic decentralization (a reform introduced in 1993) has served as an instrument of local democratization, regime legitimacy, and post-conflict reconstruction in the form of stability in local communities. (I.e., this at least is a success).
  • Globalization has helped enhance women’s political legitimacy.
  • At the national level regime uses  foreign aid to gain internal legitimacy, but aid is not a substitute for a true democratic process. (This chapter is by Sophal Ear, who has argued elsewhere that massive foreign aid actually hinders the development of democracy in Cambodia).
  • At the rural local level also, reliance on foreign donors/NGOs has emasculated the development of indigenous political legitimacy.
  • The revival swept of Buddhism since the 1980s has played a contributing role in recreating and increasing political legitimacy.
  • The ECCC has been ineffective, and has thus missed the chance of contributing to the political legitimacy of the government.
  • Conclusion: post-conflict reconstruction was relatively fruitful, the Cambodian political context was better and more stable by 2009 than in 1991, and the government is arguably able to maintain a high level of political legitimacy. Nevertheless, “the middle ground, democratization, which is presumed to deliver post-conflict reconstruction, remains elusive”.

My own gloss on this is that Cambodia has achieved political stability and economic development, but that its future stability remains questionable due to the lack of genuine democratic and liberal institutions – meaning independent courts, a free media, oppositional politics, etc.

Lord alone knows why, but Beyond Democracy is free at google books. Or you can buy it through the usual outlets, like Monument.


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.