A Tiger Rules the Mountain

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

It’s their lives, not just a book

There was one time that I thought I had put myself in a stupid situation. It was early on when interviewing people for A Tiger Rules the Mountain and I was coming out of a building in the Ministry of Interior. As I walked out into the compound, a man on a moto pulled up beside me and asked where I was going and offered me a lift. I got on the back and he drove off.

In Western countries, such an offer would never happen but Cambodia is different. White foreigners are still looked upon as novel creatures to be welcomed into the country, and often treated with (too much) deference. In this context, this wasn’t a strange thing to happen – Cambodians had shown me great kindness many times. But the context was changing for me; I was writing a book about politics and interviewing all sorts of people. Also in my mind was the case of Australian documentary maker James Ricketson who was in a Cambodian jail.

As the man drove me along, I realised I was completely at his mercy and began to worry he was taking me somewhere I didn’t want to go. But a minute later, he turned left, as he should have, and dropped me off at my next interview. As I travelled Cambodia collecting stories, I was never really at risk. My life was not affected, but it was different for the Cambodians I was meeting.

In between interviews with Rong Chhun, he had spent 15 months in jail and lost his nephew, who had always been at his side in our interviews, in a traffic accident that nobody was ever charged for. Yeang Sothearin, Nay Vanda and Ny Sokha all spent hours telling me about their time in jail and the effect on their families. Tes Putheara couldn’t stop fidgeting as he spoke about Kem Ley, his best friend shot and killed. Chea Chiv sent me a video of police hunting through his house looking for him, minutes after he had fled. He had to leave Cambodia altogether, finding asylum in Australia.

The reality of the danger that critics of the Cambodian government can face crashed back into my conciousness three weeks ago when I got a text message. Soeng Senkaruna, a human rights worker heavily featured in my book, was having to flee Cambodia because Hun Sen had called for him to be charged and Karuna knew that jail awaited. He, his wife and his teenage daughter are now officially refugees seeking asylum, facing the prospect of never returning to their home.

At the same time as this is happening, Cambodia’s new Prime Minister, Hun Manet, is attending an ASEAN summit in Australia, where he will be welcomed by dignitaries. He can present himself as a modern reformer, while his father, Hun Sen, still cracks down on critics. Australia’s former Foreign Minister, Gareth Evans AC KC, and I wrote an article about this contradiction, and Karuna’s case, which appeared in The Age/Sydney Morning Herald and The Conversation.

Gareth Evans and I also point out that Hun Sen will become President of the Senate so that father and son will rule both chambers of parliament. Hun Sen will also act as Head of State when the King is out of the country, and his other two sons are now Deputy Prime Minister and Deputy Commander of the Army, meaning one family now controls much a whole country.

For me, this becomes an op-ed and a blog post but for Cambodians, this is their life.

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