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Hun Sen's charm offensive in Thailand

While staying behind in Phnom Pehn, Prime Minister Hun Sen was on a charm offensive in Thailand to hand an olive branch and show off his country's future leader. He dispatched all his top military brass, headed by Defence Minister Tea Banh, for a two-day visit. But one man stood out - Lt-General Hun Manet, 37, the deputy army chief, the eldest son of Hun Sen, the region's longest-reigning leader. Make no mistake, it is at the Thai capital that the anointed future leader of Cambodia is making his presence felt. It was a calculated move by his father.

Thailand and Cambodia have once again kissed and made up. The longstanding dispute over the Preah Vihear/Phra Viharn Temple and the demarcation line which caused several brief border wars and numerous casualties on both sides has been cast aside for now. The ruling by the International Court of Justice last November will be implemented once both sides are ready to assure a peaceful border and tourism prospects.

This kind of Thai-Cambodian camaraderie and goodwill was extremely rare even during the two-year reign of Yingluck, whose brother Thaksin once served as an economic adviser to Hun Sen. The relations were correct and calm but lacked the present dynamics.

In the first instance, the Cambodian delegation expressed satisfaction with the return of an estimated 250,000 workers despite the earlier misunderstanding that led to an exodus across the border. They are now back to work with "single-stop" facilitation offices set up by the National Council for Peace and Order (NPCO). With Cambodia's economic slow-down and the high cost of living, the untimely return of a huge number of workers could cause economic havoc in the country.

Albeit high in symbolism, the visit has nonetheless rebooted Thai-Cambodian relationship to a new level as there were no differences during the heart-to-heart meeting, only concurrence on priorities related to their countries' stability and economic progress. Obviously, both sides need each other more than ever before to move forward.

The NPCO needs time and a peaceful eastern border to consolidate domestic reforms and improve its international image. A cooperative and hands-off Cambodia that is at peace would certainly help. Likewise, Hun Sen also wants political stability on the home front after last week's political breakthrough with his rival, Sam Rainsy, following a full year of political impasse.

A fully functioning parliament with the opposition party's participation will help give Hun Sen some much-needed credibility within Asean and the international community, which helped to rebuild Cambodia in 1991. A stable Thailand will boost economic benefits for Cambodia and its people with more investment and jobs.

True to his Machiavellian instinct, Hun Sen knows well the winners in Thai politics as he has witnessed the rise and fall of 13 Thai prime ministers since 1979. The best way to woo the military junta and jump-start anew with Thailand is now by calling on them and at the same time introducing the leader-in-waiting, Hun Manet, to senior Thai colleagues. After all, he is young and can be humble. In the Thai and Cambodian tradition, when the young comes for a visit seniors must respond with full generosity, and no malicious intent; indeed, a blessing in disguise. Lest we forget, the young general was a well-known figure throughout the Thai-Cambodian border conflict a few years back. Stories were abound how he braved the enemy's bullets and artillery fire to direct his troops for counterattacks that caused great casualties to the enemy across the border. He also negotiated a temporary ceasefire with Thailand in February 2010.

At home, Hun Sen, 61, is contemplating his future. What kind of legacy does he leave for the Cambodian people? For a full three decades, he has ruled with an iron-fist and turned the once war-torn nation into one of the fastest-growing economies in Southeast Asia. He transformed it from a centrally planned to a market-oriented economy, luring foreign investors. In 1994, Cambodia's per capita income was US$348 and today its is $1,009 - a three-fold increase. The poverty level dropped to 30 per cent in 2007 from 39 per cent in 1994.

The government hopes to reduce it to 25 per cent next year when it is integrated with the Asean Community. Unfortunately, records of rampaging corruption, abuse of power and lack of governance trumped positive indexes and delayed social progress.

With the shocking outcome of last year's election, it has suddenly dawned on Hun Sen that he has gradually lost popularity and his grip on power. Before the poll, he was confident of victory for his party, the Cambodian People's Party (CPP). He did not even bother to campaign much. His opponent, Sam Rainsy, the leader of Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), seized the opportunity and mobilised supporters, many of them young first-time voters, to take part in the poll.

His party won handsomely with 55 seats while the CPP got just 68, a loss of 22 seats from the 2008 election. The CNRP cried foul and called for an independent investigation of voting fraud. For the past one year, politics in Cambodia has been stuck in a tussle between the two sides.

It remains to be seen how Samdech Akeak Moha Sena Padey Decho Hun Sen can leave a lasting legacy that can match up with the much revered King Norodom Sihanouk. Hun Sen is changing his hardline attitude to a more sanguine one, to display his soft and positive side to attract younger Cambodians, who have turned against him. He hopes his children, all in their thirties, would lead the way and engage the Cambodian youth. Eventually, with a normal functioning parliament and a rule-based society and acceptance of his chosen leader, Hun Sen can find an exit strategy despite his pledge to stay on in power until 74 years old.


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