Survival Of The Paranoid

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    Hun Sen's life has been dominated by one issue: survival. Concern for himself, politically and physically, has been so overpowering that every decision he makes--from a car journey to the appointment of a general--is a function of "Will this make me safer?" He started with nothing. The villagers in his native Peam Koh Sna, four hours up the Mekong River from Phnom Penh, remember him as a clever, quiet boy. He displayed "a talent to persuade people by speaking," according to Chin Tho, 58, who farms tobacco along the river. But Hun Sen's family was poorer than average, and he never finished school. To this day, he is more at ease campaigning in the rice fields than talking politics in the city. And the Prime Minister, who is proud of a son about to graduate from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, likes to show off the honorary degrees he has been awarded by small colleges in California and Iowa.

    At 19, Hun Sen was a company commander in the Khmer Rouge with a pistol strapped to his hip, fighting the U.S.-backed government of Lon Nol. He survived the war although he lost his left eye, and he then fled to Vietnam to escape bitter purges by an increasingly paranoid Pol Pot. Many colleagues who fell afoul of Pol Pot were tortured to death in the infamous Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh. "I lost my first child during Pol Pot's time," Hun Sen says. "One of my in-laws was killed and many of my uncles and nephews." He returned to Cambodia as part of the Vietnamese-backed government after Hanoi's 1979 invasion sent Pol Pot and his forces into the jungle. From those redoubts, they would harry Hun Sen for two decades.

    Hun Sen is now 47 and has outlasted Pol Pot. The remaining Khmer Rouge leaders are decrepit, living in a small backwater town, their forces depleted. But the Khmer Rouge taught Hun Sen fear, and they taught it well. In the end, it is fear that stands between Hun Sen and the trials. "If we just kill these people, will we have peace?" he asks. But if he waits too long, fear will become his epitaph. Cambodia cannot wait forever for justice. "This is the only chance we have to set up a system so people will respect the law," says Youk Chhang, head of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, which has been compiling records of Khmer Rouge killings. "How can you walk away from 1.7 million lives?"

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