Freelance correspondent Sebastian Strangio takes on politics, power, progress and the Prime Minister in his new debut book, Hun Sen’s Cambodia. Writer Joanna Mayhew gets the inside scoop on his analysis of today’s Cambodia, and what it means for the future. Photography by Charles Fox.
What’s the book about?
It focuses on Cambodia since the end of the Khmer Rouge; the collapse of the regime in 1979 and the government, society and system that has taken its place. There are plenty of books about Cambodia’s history through the late 1990s, but there’s very little about the country today. I felt there was a gap to be filled, especially with the wave of discontent that came to the surface at last year’s election. These events needed to be contextualised. I’ve tried to look at 2013 in light of 1979 and examine it as a unit.
How did you get the idea?
When I came here in 2008, I [sensed] the most interesting issues weren’t being discussed. I realised this whole super structure of development and aid and foreign intervention here has achieved very little. Cambodia is a society awash in references to democracy and human rights narratives, but these ideas in practice are mostly absent. I wanted to delve into that issue more—what impact has the last 20 years of democracy promotion, human rights activism achieved in Cambodia?
What was most interesting in your research?
The way that Cambodia encapsulated this global wave of optimism at the start of the 1990s, and the way it demonstrates that optimism about democratic development was divorced from reality. You have a country that was the perennial victim of Cold War politics, and now the international community will help [it] establish peace, democracy, human rights, and all of the saving ideas of this new liberal world order. What happens very quickly is that it all starts to backslide. Cambodia tracks both the optimism and the disillusionment of this sense the world is changing.
What distinguishes this book?
My book presents a nuanced view of the Prime Minister. I give Hun Sen his due. I make an attempt to see the world through his eyes, to analyse the political experiences [that] shaped his outlook, and to look at previous regimes. Of course I highlight the negative impacts of his reign, and the way he’s very cleverly manipulated his opponents and entrenched his hold on power. I don’t think anybody can accuse me of being unfair. Seeing the progression of Hun Sen from a skinny rebel soldier who joined the anti-Sihanouk insurgency in the late 1960s, how he learned the craft of politics, gained in confidence and grew as a politician. That’s a story that hasn’t [before] been well told.
What drew you to journalism here?
It was a country that I had travelled in, read about. I knew the press was relatively free and publications would give young reporters the chance to get involved. I always saw myself doing journalism overseas. The life of a journalist is a life of endless education. You’re constantly learning about interesting things, and I liked that I would be able to analyse [things] as I see them. That independence was—is—one of the main draws.
What keeps you motivated?
Like with everything, you need change. I did three years of daily journalism. Then I started to look further afield and reported on Bangladesh, Thailand, Burma, North Korea, Eastern Russia, India. That reinvigorated my passion for journalism. Then the book did the same thing. Once I was getting tired of this itinerant existence, I was able to immerse myself in research, and I felt my academic training and my journalism training came together in a really fruitful way. It put a cap on the interests I’ve had in this country for 10 years.
What was the process like?
I spent two years researching, which involved nearly 100 lengthy interviews, as well as extensive reporting around the country, which involved many more interviews with ordinary people. The government allows access to certain individuals, but the more interesting an interview subject is, the harder they are to get a meeting with. The person I expended significant resources on was trying to get an interview with the Prime Minister, but once the election happened, it seemed to be off the table.
What were the challenges?
I had about 4,000 newspaper articles, 100 reports, 120 journal articles, [and] 120 books that I entered into my database. Keeping control of all of that information is incredibly challenging, and one of the most satisfying things was imposing order on the chaos. [Also,] I was writing this book either side of the July election last year. I was trying to analyse a moving target. The Cambodia I encountered at the start of writing in 2012 and the Cambodia today—the difference between the two is quite significant.
Are you optimistic about Cambodia’s future?
I think there’s reason for cautious optimism. Change is coming, but there’s no guarantee it’s going to happen according to [an international] template. People are becoming more educated, more connected, and more demanding of change, and their demands are going to have to be taken very seriously. I don’t think Cambodia is going to reach the promise land anytime soon. But given those caveats, I am optimistic the country’s moving in a more just direction. And whether or not it becomes a true democracy, any country that treats its people with more respect, gives them more back and is fairer to them will be a better country.
Published by Silkworm Books, Hun Sen’s Cambodia is for sale at Monument Books in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.