Survival Of The Paranoid

  • The one-eyed man appears to be talking about chess. "In order to kill your enemies you should know how to move your pawns," says Hun Sen, Prime Minister of Cambodia. But his thoughts are really on his kind of politics. There are no political opponents, only enemies to be eliminated; no debate, only plots to survive. "If you lead with your big pieces, you put them in danger." He knows about danger. He followed and abandoned the genocidal dictator Pol Pot, survived the Khmer Rouge's killing fields and civil war to become master of a country haunted by 1.7 million unavenged ghosts. For Hun Sen, power means survival, and it has only two settings: all or nothing.

    Hun Sen lives in the Tiger's Den, a fortified five-acre compound half an hour's drive from the capital, Phnom Penh. There, during the sporadic outbursts of fighting that threaten his rule, he retreats to his emergency war room, a small building with dark glass windows and aerials on the roof. Inside is a small bedroom. "You see this?" he asks, pointing to a closet with a mirror on the front. "Inside, there is a secret trapdoor into the basement. When you are a soldier, you have to know the ways of escape." He regrets he cannot go to restaurants; he fears assassination too much. Last year an attempt was made on his life in a northern town, using remote-controlled rockets. "In a way I am living in a prison without walls," he tells TIME. Within the compound, he often works till 1 a.m. or 2 a.m, and last week he was busily pitting his instinct to survive against the U.S. State Department's preferred way of dealing with the Khmer Rouge's bloody legacy. His only relaxation is chess. Grinning, he says, "I usually win."

    The Prime Minister very rarely grins. He is better known for a brooding scowl and outbursts of temper. But on March 6 he was ebullient as he presided over his daughter's wedding. His smile was broadcast over a huge video screen to 5,000 guests at tables spread around his house in the Tiger's Den. Hun Sen was doubly happy, he said in his speech, not only because of his daughter's marriage but also because that very day his troops had arrested Ta Mok, the Khmer Rouge leader also known as "the Butcher," the last of the rebel commanders still at large since the death of the fugitive Pol Pot in the jungle last year. But diplomats at the feast were less than pleased. Hun Sen said Ta Mok was to be tried in a Cambodian court, not in the international tribunal the U.N. has been planning for months, and he did not talk about arresting other Khmer Rouge leaders. In fact, Hun Sen admitted to TIME that he was "scared" of putting all the aging leaders on trial at this time.

    Only two years ago, Hun Sen requested U.N. assistance in setting up an international tribunal to try Khmer Rouge leaders for some of the worst crimes against humanity this century has seen. Last month three independent U.N. jurists presented him with a report on how 20 to 30 top Khmer Rouge leaders could be put on trial in another Asian country. But after two decades of denouncing the "genocidal regime of Pol Pot," Hun Sen is balking. "We have no confidence in an international court of law," he says.

    The Prime Minister begins talking about himself in the third person. "Hun Sen has nothing to lose by a trial of the Khmer Rouge leaders--only to gain," he says. "The problem is not the Khmer Rouge, but their relations with others. If we didn't need national reconciliation, I would not be scared of a trial. We have to be cautious to avoid any panic among leaders of the Khmer Rouge." Hun Sen fears that a large-scale trial would disturb the balance he has achieved, one that has rabid guerrillas, royalists and former communists from his own party in check under his stringent authority. "For the first time in 30 years," he says, "Cambodia is at peace." U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright feels otherwise about a trial: "We think it is the only way to bring reconciliation." Hun Sen dismisses such disagreeableness. "If one wants to work with Hun Sen, one should study Hun Sen's resume closely," says the Prime Minister. "I don't like being pressed."

    The more Hun Sen feels threatened, the more his dark side shows. After losing an election in 1993, he bullied his way into a coalition government and then, in July 1997, staged a coup that drove his opponents and erstwhile partners out of the country. The international community cut off most aid in protest to the bloodiness of the coup and the 100 or so executions that came after it. But Hun Sen survived all that.

    The political killings have continued, and although Hun Sen denies Cambodia is "a country of impunity," his promises to investigate and arrest the killers have come to nothing. He may not have personally ordered the killings, but some of his lieutenants are widely feared: victims have been found with eyes gouged out or hands cut off, clearly tortured before they were killed. Says Christophe Peschoux of the U.N. Human Rights office in Phnom Penh: "It is the chronic problem of Cambodia. They cannot manage conflict. Either they use intermediaries, or they reach for the gun. They cannot sit down and discuss differences."

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