Kavi Chongkittavorn

Hun Sen's charm offensive in Thailand

Mr Hun Sen (above) showed off Cambodia's future leader in Thailand.
Mr Hun Sen (above) showed off Cambodia's future leader in Thailand.

Though he remained in Phnom Penh, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen was on a charm offensive in Thailand last week, extending an olive branch and showing off his country's future leader.

He dispatched all his top military brass for a two-day visit. But one man stood out - Lieutenant-General Hun Manet, 37, the deputy army chief and eldest son of Mr Hun Sen, the region's longest-reigning leader. It is in the Thai capital that the anointed future leader of Cambodia is making his presence felt.

Thailand and Cambodia have once again kissed and made up. The longstanding dispute over the Preah Vihear/Phra Viharn Temple and the demarcation line which caused several brief border wars has been set aside for now. The ruling by the International Court of Justice last November will be implemented once both sides are ready to ensure a peaceful border.

This kind of Thai-Cambodian camaraderie and goodwill was extremely rare, even during the two-year reign of Ms Yingluck Shinawatra, whose brother Thaksin once served as an economic adviser to Hun Sen. The relations were correct and calm but lacked the present dynamics.

The Cambodian delegation expressed satisfaction with the return of an estimated 250,000 workers despite an earlier misunderstanding that led to an exodus across the border. They are now back to work in Thailand. With Cambodia's economic slowdown and the high cost of living, the untimely return of a huge number of workers could have caused economic havoc.

The visit has taken the Thai-Cambodian relationship to a new level. There were no differences expressed during the meeting, only a concurrence on priorities related to the stability and economic progress of the two countries. Both sides need each other more than ever before to move forward.

After last week's political breakthrough with his rival Sam Rainsy, following a full year of political impasse, Mr Hun Sen is also looking forward to a period of political stability. A fully functioning Parliament with the opposition party's participation will help give Mr Hun Sen some much-needed credibility within Asean and the international community. A stable Thailand will boost economic benefits for Cambodia and its people with more investment and jobs.

Mr Hun Sen knows the winners in Thai politics well. He has witnessed the rise and fall of 13 Thai prime ministers since 1979. The best way to woo the military junta and jump-start relations with Thailand now is by calling on them and introducing the leader-in-waiting, Lt-Gen Hun Manet, to senior Thai colleagues. After all, he is young and can be humble. In the Thai and Cambodian tradition, when the young come to visit, seniors must respond with full generosity, without malicious intent.

The young general was a well-known figure throughout the Thai-Cambodian border conflict a few years back. Stories abound about how he braved the enemy's bullets and artillery fire to direct his troops in counterattacks. He also negotiated a temporary ceasefire with Thailand in February 2010.

At home, Mr Hun Sen, 61, is contemplating his future. What kind of legacy does he leave for the Cambodian people? For a full three decades, he has ruled with an iron fist and turned the once war-torn nation into one of the fastest-growing economies in South-east Asia. Luring foreign investors, he transformed it from a centrally planned economy to a market-oriented one. In 1994, Cambodia's per capita income was US$348. Today, it is US$1,009 (S$1,260). The poverty level has also dropped from 39 per cent in 1994 to 30 per cent in 2007.

The government hopes to cut it further to 25 per cent next year when the country is integrated with the Asean Community. But reports of rampaging corruption, abuse of power and poor governance have trumped such positive indicators and delayed social progress.

The shocking result of last year's election has suddenly made Mr Hun Sen realise that he has gradually lost popularity. Before the poll, he was confident of victory for his Cambodian People's Party (CPP). He did not even bother to campaign much. His opponent Sam Rainsy, the leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), seized the opportunity and mobilised supporters, many of them young first-time voters.

Mr Sam Rainsy's party won 55 seats while the ruling CPP got just 68, a loss of 22 seats from the 2008 election. The CNRP cried foul and called for an independent investigation of voting fraud. For the past year, politics in Cambodia has been stuck in a tussle between the two sides.

It remains to be seen how far Mr Hun Sen can leave a lasting legacy that can match that of the much revered King Norodom Sihanouk. Mr Hun Sen is changing his hardline attitude, to display his soft and positive side to attract younger Cambodians, who have turned against him. He hopes his children will lead the way and engage the Cambodian youth. Eventually, with a normal, functioning Parliament, a rule-based society and acceptance of his chosen leader, Mr Hun Sen can find an exit strategy, despite his pledge to stay on in power till he is 74.


The writer is assistant group editor of the Nation Media Group in Thailand, which publishes the English-language daily, The Nation.