A Tiger Rules the Mountain

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

The Tigers

Cambodia has an ancient proverb: ភ្នំមួយមិនអាចមានខ្លាពីរបានទេ។ (One mountain cannot have two tigers). This means that there can be only one ruler and there is no sharing of power. But Cambodia has had three tigers wrestling for power for more than a decade, which A Tiger tells the story of.

Samdech Techo Hun Sen, Prime Minister, Cambodia.
Courtesy of World Economic Forum / Sikarin Fon Thanachaiary

Hun Sen, Prime Minister, Cambodia’s People Party

Chapter 3, The Man in Charge

”On 25th December 1978, a massive Vietnamese army of 100,000 troops invaded Cambodia, assisted by a much smaller Cambodian force, with Sen as one of its leaders. Within two weeks, the Khmer Rouge had fled to the mountain jungles and a new Vietnamese-backed government was installed in Phnom Penh with the youthful Sen appointed as Foreign Minister. Hun Sen was still only 32 years old when, in January 1985 following the death of his predecessor, the Cambodian Communist Party and its Vietnamese backers selected him to become Prime Minister.

By the late 1980s, Hun Sen, whose initial salary as Foreign Minister was ten kilograms of rice and six kilograms of maize, had become “an outstanding politician” with deeply informed views of international affairs. After the demise of his communist patrons – Vietnam withdrew its soldiers in 1989 as the Soviet Union could no longer provide support – Hun Sen visited America where he impressed congressmen, The Wall Street Journal and government officials with his “poise”, “aplomb”, and ability to hold court in meetings.The New York Times headlined that the “Vietnamese puppet was finding his voice” reporting that he had become “an articulate and unintimidated prime minister”.’

Sam Rainsy, Cambodian National Rescue Party

Chapter 4, To The Rescue

‘Sam Rainsy stepped onto a chair in the middle of Wat Botum park and began treating 200 of his followers to a tirade on corrupt judges whose scales of justice were always tipped by bribes. It was only 8:30am but the humidity of Cambodia’s hot season was already causing beads of sweat to trickle into his eyes. Feeling unusually faint, he cut his speech short and gave way to a mother of two whose house had been confiscated as part of an illegal land deal that a judge refused to annul unless she paid him. Caught in a flow of invective, neither she nor Rainsy noticed the ring of policemen collectively take a few steps back from the crowd. Moments later, she was upended from the chair as a blast tore through the feet of Rainsy’s supporters. Rainsy felt somebody push him in the back, forcing him to the ground just before another grenade exploded. Dazed and sandwiched between concrete paving and a prone body, he heard a woman shout to his wife, “Your husband is dead! Your husband is dead!” The ground then shook with the explosions of two more grenades.

‘Rainsy rolled the heavy body away and saw the dead eyes of his loyal bodyguard staring skywards. He struggled to his feet, covered in blood and choking in the smoke, trying to make sense of bodies strewn in front of him. One woman, lying beside a sugarcane juice cart where the third grenade exploded, writhed in agony with both feet blown off. A 13-year-old boy, still clutching his protest sign, was pinned to the ground with shrapnel in his legs and arms.’

Kem Sokha, Cambodian National Rescue Party

Chapter 4, To The Rescue

”The leader of the Human Rights Party was Kem Sokha, a much shorter and squarer man than Rainsy. Sokha’s face is wrinkled and leathery, and his mouth generally downturned, causing my quick-witted colleague Kannitha to admit:

“If I look at his face, I don’t like him at all. Look at his face, cannot win my trust. But I like his opinion, I like the way he speaks. I like his words. [They are] from the human rights perspective. I like the way he says things. For example, ‘As the driver, if you drive very well, the passenger will not be scared or express fear. If you drive well, smooth, passengers will be calm, happy. If the passenger always complain, maybe the way we drive, maybe something wrong.’ Simple talk, so that illiterate people can understand.’

The Storytellers

A Tiger Rules the Mountain is told through the voices of Cambodians involved in the most dramatic events. Meet the Government officials, opposition politicians, journalists and trade union leaders who are sharing their stories with you.

Rong Chhun, Trade unionist & former National Election Committee member

Chapter 11, A Culture of Dialogue

Rong Chhun was an inspiring teacher, but it has been a long time since he was allowed to teach in a school. Rather, he spent a short time in prison along with Kem Sokha in 2005 when facing a charge of defamation against Hun Sen. Notoriously vocal, Rong Chhun knew that if he joined the National Election Committee, he could no longer be an independent critic.

Rong Chhun spoke to friends and eventually surmised that if the NEC had acted independently, the CNRP would have won the 2013 election, which would have led to “big changes for teachers and garment factory workers”. He hoped that by joining the NEC he “could protect the interests of the people”. On the day of his confirmation, Rong Chhun announced he was “sharpening his spurs” to challenge any barriers to a free and fair election.

H.E. Hang Puthea, National Election Committe Member

Chapter 23, Chhobbe

‘The eyes of Cambodia were on Puthea, previously a high-profile campaigner for free and fair elections, and the CNRP’s fourth member, Hing Thirith, the judge who famously enraged the CPP for freeing the framed killers of union leader Chea Vichea. I asked Puthea what pressure he was feeling, and he became indignant at the CNRP who he thought expected him to follow Rong Chhun:’

“Really, we come from different sides – ruling, opposition and…me alone. I am not under CPP or CNRP. I am the person that did not ask CPP or CNRP to join NEC. So please let me make decision by myself. The law make us neutral. Why, when I am neutral, do I have to follow CNRP or CPP? I play my role by the law. I don’t want to follow CPP or CNRP.”

May Titthara, Journalist

Chapter 2, Injustice Burns

‘May Titthara was in primary school when his uncle returned from the Soviet Union to visit his parents. Sitting in the corner of his small wooden home Titthara heard the adults talk, but his eyes were fixed on his uncle’s leather messenger bag that had a camera sticking out the top of it, neither of which he had ever seen before. Titthara, surrounded by rice fields and farmers, could not help but ask what it was his uncle did. Titthara had no idea what a journalist was, but staring at that bag and camera, he knew that he wanted to become one too.’

Learning quickly, Titthara’s style attracted The Phnom Penh Post for whom he ended up becoming their star reporter.

“I love investigative journalism a lot. The first time, I never know how to write investigative [stories]. I just write breaking news and then a lot of feature stories. I work with foreigners and they said that I did a lot of investigative journalism. I said ‘No, I don’t know’ but it seems I was.”

Titthara’s investigations took him on a journey to Thailand in 2008 where he uncovered a network trafficking Cambodian men to work as fishermen slaves there. The small boy besotted by a camera was now the winner of an Asian journalism award, although he had kept his floppy brown hair and plump cheeks.

H.E. Huy Vannak, Secretary of State, Ministry of Interior & President, Union of Journalist Federations

Chapter 22, Radio Silence

‘The pressure was coming because Hun Sen called it ‘a radio against the government’.[i] It had riled government by using antagonistic phrases, as Huy Vannak, the President of the Union of Journalist Federations of Cambodia (UJFC), explained: ‘They keep using the words “Hun Sen regime”, “Phnom Penh regime”. But if you understand Khmer culture, that’s too much. The words, the language, the tone. It’s not journalism that provide information, they provide piece of opinion. And their own agenda … They don’t work on balance.’

Vannak had previously worked as a journalist for Radio Free Asia, before completing a Master’s degree in America, and he felt that the station had fallen from the principles it once held and was full of ‘hate’ against the CPP. ‘Before, we produced a mixed program, but now it’s a platform for politics. Before, we have agriculture, we have education, we have science, we have law. And the idea for our talk show is to provide solution to the issues, not make a judgement … Their style has changed … They don’t uphold the profession.’

Vannak talked about how he admired Singapore and hoped Cambodia would follow its model, prompting me to ask if it concerned him that Singapore was rated to have less press freedom than Cambodia. His reply was instant:

“I say this over and over before. To me, it doesn’t mean I don’t care, but what I care about is quality. What I care the most, whatever, wherever, anyone, it’s about quality. Quality. Freedom is just complementing. Freedom, yes, but if the way you speak is stupid…”

H.E. Dav Ansan,
Undersecretary of State – Ministry of Industry; Central Committee Member, Union of Youth Federations Cambodia; Executive Director – Cambodian Development Center

Chapter 33, The Price of Rice

I asked Ansan what he felt when he saw the flames and rocks being thrown on Veng Sreng Street and he took me back to the battle between CPP and FUNCINPEC in 1997. Ansan had a class next to a hospital and when he went there, there was a large hole in the wall caused by a rocket and shrapnel littered the ground.

“That’s the first time that I saw rocket landing on a roof. The first time that I heard rocket launcher and could feel them. [Later] I was with my Mum. People just ran away from the centre, and away from the house of Prince Ranariddh. They launched from here (we were sitting near Prince Ranariddh’s former house) and to other targets… It looked like the picture of 1975, like the evacuation [of Phnom Penh]. You see the smoke. You see the people running, walking, cycling. Getting whatever they could take with them.”

A young Ansan raced to the market afraid that people would loot the family’s stall. Running back and forth, Ansan ferried as much as his small body could carry. His voice dropped, quietening and slowing. “It was bad. That was the first time that I experience it and it is still there.” Referring to the flames that still burn inside Cambodians from decades of trauma, Ansan, his voice naked and fragile, continued to mutter to himself, “It is still there.”

There was a long pause before Ansan began to explain that it is these experiences that make him different from his children’s generation. He doesn’t believe his children would understand a world where, like Ansan witnessed as a child, adults would shoot guns into the air to stop the rain.

Sin Rozeth, Deputy Commune Chief

Chapter 19, The Rise of Rozeth

‘Rozeth had become admired throughout Cambodia, despite only being a local politician. At the 2017 commune election, nearly two-thirds of people voted CNRP in O’Char commune making Sin Rozeth their new Commune Chief. The people of O’Char had found their champion, rather than their patron.

Sitting opposite me, Rozeth’s dark brown hair was tied back and she had little beads of moisture on her brow, unusual as most Cambodians appear immune to the sweltering stickiness, as though born without sweat glands. She paused to take a breath and there was a moment of silence. I asked her how she felt when she heard that she had become the chief, and her eyes widened with her smile. 

“Excited! It was what I wished for, hoped for. It became true. All the observers walk to the party office full of energy. They had worked all day but they were not tired. Not only to compete with the ruling party, but internally to be taken seriously. I had to compete. There are 10 communes in the city and my commune got the highest. So, I had strong feelings. Old men in the party would sometimes say that I may think I am smart but I would see what happened in the election. They doubted. That result proved I had good communication and relationships with people. It proved I did it right.”

President, Grassroots Democratic Party

Chapter 30, Your Aim Is One

‘When the CNRP began to negotiate with the CPP, Virak felt the CNRP focussed on attaining positions, such as chairmanship of five largely powerless parliamentary committees, rather than negotiating policies and legal amendments:

“The sad thing was the behaviour of the top leader. It’s like, ‘Ok guys, I’ve got this. You can trust me. We’ve got the main messages and can explain to people about everything later.’” Virak said people felt disappointed and “the feeling went down”.

Virak watched the leaders negotiate policies by themselves and laws being passed without discussion or debate. The National Assembly became “like a robot, like a machine”. Virak and others concluded that the CPP would never build a “genuine democratic society” and that the CNRP “will always be an opposition party, because how they structure themselves – a one man show.” The Grassroots Democratic Party began building political participation at a local level with members deciding policies and leadership. “These parties [CPP and CNRP] only produce followers”, said Virak, “our mission is to produce good leaders.”

Soeng Sen Karuna, Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC)

Chapter 9, Veng Sreng Street

‘Soeng Sen Karuna has been working for Cambodian human rights organisations since 2004, but his interest in human rights began in 1993 when, as a young man, he attended a two-week training course organised by UNTAC, the certificate of which is still on display at home. Jovial and portly, Karuna seems to value human life for the enjoyment it can bring as much as any philosophy of individual liberty. It is a wonder, which he shares when retelling his stories, that such a convivial man can so often find himself caught in a situation of violence. Just two months earlier in November 2013, Karuna had tried to quell a protest that became a riot in which police shot eight people, killing one innocent bystander. One man huddling next to Karuna amidst the onslaught was shot in the torso, paralysed for life.’

‘Karuna cannot remember who, but somebody once told him that it is better to stand behind police lines during a riot, as you are less likely to be shot at. Arriving at Veng Sreng Street, he adhered to this sage advice, watching protestors throw rocks from the other side of police lines. It wasn’t long, however, before he felt a stone strike the back of his own head. Rubbing the emerging bump, Karuna turned around to see who it was but the street lay empty behind him. It was in front of him that clashes continued and he was still there trying to calm tensions at midnight when police fired shots at protestors, breaking through barricades of burning tyres to clear the area.’

Signs of the CPP

Cambodia is covered by signs paying tribute to the ruling Cambodian Peoples Party (CPP)

Rainsy’s Return

Two tigers unite to challeng the ruling tiger. Read exceprts alongside images from the time.

Chasing the Tiger

Read how A Tiger was born as the question became clear and I began chasing the tiger.

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