Harish & Julie Mehta Pen First Hun Sen Biography.
Book Launched in City, in July.
By Lekha Shankar
Well-known Indian academic-author couple, Harish and Julie Mehta, former residents of Bangkok, and presently based in Toronto, returned in July to the city that was their home for many years, to release an updated and totally revised version of their exclusive biography Strongman: The Extraordinary Life of Hun Sen, From Pagoda Boy to Prime Minister of Cambodia. Bangkok was the appropriate place for the book’s release because it was in this city that the authors conceived and wrote the book. It was in Bangkok that they interviewed Hun Sen’s son, Hun Manet, and other members of his family.
Bangkok is an integral part of the intellectual life of the Mehtas. In Bangkok they wrote three other books on Cambodia: Harish wrote Cambodia Silenced, and Warrior Prince, and Julie wrote Dance of Life. They lived in Bangkok and Singapore for 17 years, and their current research and writing focuses on Southeast Asia.
The Mehtas both hold doctoral degrees. At McMaster University and Trent University, Harish teaches courses in US foreign relations, Southeast Asian history, the Vietnam Wars, and Human Rights in History. At the University of Toronto, Julie teaches the Chancellor-endowed course on Asian Cultures in Canada, Asian-North American Literature, and World Literature. They are former senior correspondents with the Singapore Straits Times group, and were editors of the Mumbai magazines Gentleman and Imprint.
Within days of release in July, Strongman received good press reviews. Kong Rithdee wrote in the Bangkok Post: “Readers will find this insightful book about Cambodia’s most prominent political figure as relevant as when it first appeared.” The Bangkok Post added that the book contains: “analysis on the role of Cambodia and the US in Cold War politics, based on new declassified materials that provide a context to that giddy period of Indochinese power play. Other additions include an interview with Hun Manet, Hun Sen’s son, as well as five solid chapters that look at the Strongman’s plan of succession and cultivation.”
James Pringle commented in Asia Sentinel: “The book is indeed filled with often fascinating detail, and is not a total whitewash either. Sometimes, the Mehtas, husband and wife, have a clear vision. ‘Some critics argued,’ they wrote, ‘that without the moderating presence of Sihanouk, Hun Sen and the other CPP [Cambodian People’s Party] leaders would function without restraint…’ How likely to be true!” The Voice of America said the book “describes the changing perceptions of Hun Sen through the eyes of Western and Asian countries.”
The Strongman launch, at the Foreign Correspondents Club, was attended by Cambodian Ambassador You Ay and Indian Ambassador Anil Wadhwa, both of whom declared that it was a book that would evoke a lot of interest in the region, especially with the forthcoming formation of the ASEAN Economic Community with open borders and a single market in 2015, and the July 2013 elections in Cambodia, which Hun Sen’s CPP won easily.
The book is important because it casts light on many little-known facts about a man who rarely interacts with media: we learn about the Herculean struggles and traumas this rural individual faced, at every stage of his life – as a young boy whose impoverished parents sent him to live with monks in a Phnom Penh pagoda because they could not afford to pay for his education, which the pagoda took care of. As a pagoda boy, he often slept under a monk’s bed and begged him to let down his mosquito net in order to avoid being bitten. As a teenaged Khmer Rouge soldier, the ever-intrusive Khmer Rouge attempt to block his marriage with his lady love, Bun Rany, who was a teenaged Khmer Rouge medical officer.
Hun Sen is now creating a Hun dynasty, transferring power to his children and the children of other CPP leaders that ran in the July elections.
Excerpts from an interview with the Mehtas at the Authors Lounge of the Oriental Hotel:
What is the difference between the first edition of the book in 1999 and this new edition in 2013?
Harish: This book is 125 pages longer, and has six new chapters! The extra pages came about when I got access to about 100 declassified documents from the US Central Intelligence Agency, State Department, and the papers of President George H.W. Bush, which showed that the West did not despise Hun Sen as was made out to be, but that right through the Cold War, they were impressed by his strength and his initiative. President Francois Mitterrand of France, in fact, said Hun Sen needed to be “taken into account” for his good governance. I found many such documents from other leaders in ASEAN. Our publisher thought that it would be good for us to bring out an ‘updated’ version of the book, to coincide with Cambodia’s elections in July.
Hun Sen rarely gives interviews — how did you manage to get him to grant so many interviews?
Julie: We were very lucky. We did thirteen interviews with him, for nearly twenty hours! I did two interviews with his wife Bun Rany for eight hours, while we met his ‘favourite’ son Hun Manet for about four hours.
Harish: India was one of the few non-Communist countries that supported Cambodia during the Cold War, which was why he trusted me, as an Indian, to tell his story. I was reporting from Phnom Penh in 1990 on the Cambodian Peace Plan and UN elections in 1993, and Hun Sen knew me very well from my regular front-page stories in the Singapore press. I had also done a series of exclusive news interviews with him. It was a risk he took, but he wanted his story to be told, he wanted his biography written! He had been to New Delhi, had met Inder Gujral, and Rajiv Gandhi and our book mentions all this. Hun Sen was basically a product of the Cold War, but now he has a standing of his own.
What was his wife Bun Rany like?
Julie: I thought she would be a trophy-wife, but she was not. She had suffered a lot, and told us a little-known story of how her first baby was killed by the Khmer Rouge! She was 5 months’ pregnant with her son Hun Manet, when Hun Sen escaped to Vietnam. She suffered because of that, as the Khmer Rouge now considered Hun Sen a defector and an enemy, and they branded her a “widow,” telling her that her husband was dead. She had to do hard labour and go into hiding. She and her husband never saw each other for many years. They both believed that the other was dead! That’s why their second son Hun Manet is so special to them, even though they have four other children.
His son Hun Manet, currently a Major-General in the Cambodian Army, seems like his successor?
Harish: Hun Manet visited our home in Bangkok, on his way back from the US where he did his higher studies. At that point of time, he was not in the least bit interested in entering politics, and instead, wanted to do developmental work in Cambodia. Both his parents did not want him to enter politics, especially his mother. But now we hear that, like many others in Hun Sen’s family, he is part of Hun Sen’s inner political circle. The strength of Hun Sen’s long-standing success is this method of putting his loyalists in prominent positions. At the same time, his party has been winning elections with massive majority. By inducting his family into politics, he is infusing new blood into his party. What Hun Sen did was to reduce the power of the foreign French-educated elite of his country, and bring people from the rural heartland to power. He has said that he’ll remain the Cambodian leader till he’s 90 years old – and we think he may succeed!
He has been accused of corruption, nepotism, dynastic rule.
Harish: Corruption is rampant in several parts of Cambodian society, not just within the government. It is unfair to blame just one man, or one party, for it. He is not personally corrupt. His salary is US$1,150 a month. Yet, there are people in the government that are corrupt, and Hun Sen has repeatedly warned them to avoid corrupt practices. He regularly declares his financial assets to the Cambodian public.
Julie: Doesn’t this exist in many places, in Asia? Corruption is endemic, dynastic rule is happening in many countries. His connection with the rural masses is unbelievable. He loves his country immensely, and has been working hard over the past three decades to build schools, hospitals, and irrigation systems across the rural heartland of Cambodia.
Is Hun Sen good for Cambodia, especially at a time when the country will be integrated into the Asean Economic Community?
Julie: With his initiative and vision, combined with the spirit of enterprise of the Cambodian people, Cambodia should become an economic power-house. Let’s not forget that the Cambodian people are extremely clever at business. Their spirit of enterprise remained alive even during the long civil war from 1979-1991. Hun Sen is advised by a remarkable team of economic advisors who were trained both abroad and at home, and they have ensured economic stability and growth that has resulted in widespread economic prosperity.
How did you manage to write books both on Hun Sen, and his arch-rival Prince Ranariddh?
Harish: It was not easy. In fact, I was interviewing both of them simultaneously (and secretly, as they did not know that I was writing books on both of them)! I met Prince Ranariddh at length, for my book Warrior Prince, but he was disappointed on reading the book when it was released because it jeopardized his relationship with his father, King Sihanouk. I had sent him all his quotes well in advance, so he knew what was going to be in the book. Yet, he did not ask me to cut any sentences, and he told me that he wanted me to have complete editorial independence. As for Strongman, Hun Sen cooperated with us, and never asked us to show him the manuscript. He never said whether he liked the book or not. Strongman is a balanced account of Hun Sen’s life: it is critical of violence and corruption within the government, but it also paints an accurate account of the struggles faced by Hun Sen and his family, and their effort to prevent the Khmer Rouge from coming back to power.
Julie: I interviewed Princess Buppa Devi (Prince Ranariddh’s sister) at length, for my book on Khmer dance, Dance of Life. The princess did a lot to revive the dance. I think we both got a more holistic vision of Cambodia, by interviewing these diverse individuals.
Do you both miss Bangkok?
Julie: Of course. It was because of our stint in Bangkok, that we could make so many trips to Cambodia, do so many interviews, and fill in so many gray areas in our understanding of Cambodia!
Harish: Although we both thoroughly enjoy our academic jobs in Canada, we must admit that we miss Bangkok, and it’s great to be back here, after nearly a decade. We are hoping to return to Thailand more permanently, to make it our home again.
The book is available at Asia Bookstores around Thailand.