A Tiger Rules the Mountain

The world's longest serving Prime Minister and Cambodia's pursuit of democracy

A Tiger has arrived

A Tiger was let loose last night at a packed Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne, with guests including Mean Heang Tak MP and Sam Hibbins MP. The fabulous Jewel Topsfield from The Age hosted it with Gareth Evans (former Australian Foreign Minister) and Dr. Thida Kheang (Cambodian researcher) joining me for a panel discussion.

Gareth shared what it’s like sitting across a table from Khieu Samphan who had led the Khmer Rouge and its murderous regime, and how Hun Sen was a tough negotiator during the Paris Peace Agreements (1991). He also admitted that the international community failed after Cambodia’s 1993 election where it walked away and never embedded democracy and human rights as it could have. He’s convinced that Australia can play a bigger role promoting human rights in Cambodia and Asia generally.

Thida brought unique Cambodian insight by sharing how important ‘khnorng’ is in Cambodian society and politics – where the job you get, the salary you earn, the rulings of a court, the help from police, all is dependent on the connections you have to powerful people: “It is undocumented, but you hear it in conversations every day. At school, at work. Who has khnorng, who got that job because of khnorng.”

Gareth, Thida and I all talked about the growing influence of China, with Thida explaining that many Cambodians had to leave Sihanoukville because of the rising costs of renting houses and shops there. He also talked about the social disorder – for example 80 towering casinos were built in just a few years – that means many Cambodians stay away from their favourite seaside town.

China has also taken 99-year leases on huge tracts of land and is building a deep-sea naval port that is crucial to its Belt and Road Initiative as it seeks to secure oil shipping routes. Hear more in the video below.

When I started writing the book after the 2013 Cambodian election, in which the newly formed Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) had done well but not enough to defeat Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), the question everyone was asking was whether the CNRP would build on their momentum or not, as I explain in the video below – and what happened next.

I was asked a great question from the audience about the stories that didn’t make it into the book, and maybe because they were too sensitive. There were three things that I couldn’t include in the book because some people were scared what would happen, but they were not closey related to the main stories in the book. I did have to cut many stories from the book though, and talked about the indigenous leaders of Mondolkiri who fought companies cutting down their forests and Plang Sin who drove around the country getting 4000 signatures from supporters to start a political party. You can read about these heroes in ‘Lost Chapters‘.

It was a privilege to listen to Gareth and Thida, and to be quizzed about the book by Jewel who had obviously read through it with a fine tooth comb and picked out some of the most important points. I was also touched by guests who came up afterwards to talk about their time in Cambodia, and from Cambodians who are now living here but still closely involved with back home.

The most surreal part of the night was Gareth Evans asking me to sign a book for him.

That wasn’t the last surprise though as I certainly didn’t expect birthday cakes and an impromptu rendition of Happy Birthday from the guests. The night became even more special, and hopefully everyone enjoyed a little sweet treat with their book.

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