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For Author, Chasing a ‘Moving Target’ After 2013 Elections

“Hun Sen’s Cambodia" by Sebastian Strangio
“Hun Sen’s Cambodia" by Sebastian Strangio

Editor’s note: Sebastian Strangio, an international freelance correspondent and former editor at the Phnom Penh Post, has published a book, titled “Hun Sen’s Cambodia.” The book will officially launch in Phnom Penh on Nov. 19 at Meta House and will be available at Monument Books in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, as well as, on Kindle and in hardback. Strangio recently spoke to VOA Khmer from Cambodia to discuss some of his process and challenges in writing the book.

In our last interview, we did not touch on when you started writing your book. So why don't we begin with that.

I began writing the book in April 2012 and spent about two years on the research and writing, plus another six months sort of, on the post-production, editing.

My research consisted of primary and secondary documents. So I did quite a number of interviews in person. About a hundred lengthy sit-down interviews with figures, observers, experts on Cambodia, former diplomats. People like that. I also did extensive fieldwork, field reporting, which took me to Ratanakiri, to Kompong Thom, to Kandal, to Battambang, and to Malai, and interviewed many ordinary people in the field and asked them about their ordinary lives and some of the challenges that they face at the moment.

And the other large chunk of research was secondary research. It was going through hundreds of newspaper articles from the United States, from Australia, from Cambodia, synthesizing information and crafting it into a, or using it to produce, a cohesive narrative.

What were some of the challenges you faced in writing this book?

I think the biggest challenge that I faced was the fact that the election happened pretty much in the center of my research, and the election was a surprise, as we all know. It was something that I hadn't anticipated. I knew that the opposition would gain a certain amount of seats, but I wasn't anticipating the surge of support that we saw in July 2013. And so to some extent, I was being forced to follow a moving target. We didn't know where things were going to end up in July. When protesters took to the streets, it seemed as if the situation might get out of control, or it might go back to stability and peace quickly. So I found that having to do a lot of research and writing while that was going on, and trying to form my ideas about what was taking place in Cambodia and its significance was incredibly difficult.

Have you encountered cases where you were prevented from interviewing high-ranking officials in the government?

Yes, that's the case. It's very hard to get to sit down interviews with some of the core members of the CPP. In the 1980s and 1990s, Prime Minister Hun Sen was very open with the western press. He was very good at handling journalists. And you know, one former journalist who spent time here in the 1980s told me that he could basically go and knock on his door. It was that easy. But there was a certain point, I think, after 1998 and 1999, Hun Sen himself he began to get a lot more wary of speaking to the press, and it's very difficult now to get an interview with the prime minister or with any of his closest allies and colleagues.

Recently, your book was reviewed by one of the senior fellows at the Council on Foreign Relations in the US, who said he wish you had asked tough questions of Hun Sen's allies. Do you think you would have done that, but there were constraints preventing you from doing so?

Well, aside from the fact that it's very hard to get meetings with these people, I could have done that. There were people I could have interviewed and confronted, but I chose not to. That was never my aim and intention. I don't think that sort of confrontation would have revealed much interesting. I was more interested in trying to explain how the Cambodian government operates and how it views itself in the light of the last 35 years of history rather than to simply condemn it. So there were so many interesting and important things that I had to get my head around and so many interesting things that I wanted to say that I thought that would sort of divert me a little bit. And I don't think that would have added much to the narrative.

One of the main aims that I have with this book, and one of the main challenges that I faced, was trying to move beyond simply documenting all the ways in which Cambodia was corrupt or falls short of what we consider to be international human rights standard or international democratic standard, and to really ask and interrogate the assumptions that we have about how development works. And I think that what Cambodia shows is that the ease with which the democratic systems can be implanted in countries that have experienced the most horrible forms of war and revolution and upheaval is highly questionable.

I think we're seeing the same thing in Myanmar now and in the Middle East and in the Afghanistan. And I think the interesting thing about Cambodia that hasn't been remarked that often is the fact that it emerged from communism and opened to the world at a crucial juncture at the end of Cold War when we had supposedly reached the end of history, to use Francis Fukuyama's phrase. And Cambodia was to be this sort of testing ground for this new liberal internationalism. And it very quickly reverted to the mean. The ideological sea change that took place in the West didn't really have a parallel here. And Cambodian leaders continued to do things the way they've been doing them since independence essentially, and probably since before. And the truth is that international convention produced a very hollow democracy in Cambodia, an obstruction to democracy in Cambodia today.

As a working journalist, I was very torn while I was writing this book because there were protests in the streets, and I had deadlines. I had to finish a chapter by a certain date. And there were these people in the street that I wanted to go out, I wanted to report, I wanted to take photos and I wanted interview people. But I was forced to stay at my desk, and write and work on the book. And I found it really hard to do both because with the book, I was taking the long perspective. I was looking at patterns of Cambodia's history and how the current or today's events fit into that and trying to predict what elements of change and what elements of continuity we were seeing in the current Cambodian upheaval.

But when it came to day-to-day, the progress of the political negotiations between the two parties, the day-to-day progress with the protests, it was very hard to follow. I did my best. You know, in some ways, I think it was beneficial for me because it enabled me to keep my eye on the wider issues they were at play and the wider patterns. And it was very easy to kind of jump to conclusions about how much things are changing. And I think the recent upheavals in Cambodia, the recent opposition in the election results, are signs that a lot of things are changing in Cambodia, and a lot of things are staying the same. So it's about understanding the balance between continuity and change. And I think being able to sit back and analyze that through my research was very valuable. I think it gave me a pretty good perspective on the changes taking place in Cambodia right now.

From a journalist to a writer of a book about modern Cambodia today, where often the press in Cambodia is intimidated by the government, what do you think your work has done to assert the position of the press in Cambodia today?

I think the important thing to remember about the Cambodian press is that there has not really ever been a period appeared that there is a vigilante independent media that has held government officials to account. The press has always been seen as an adjunct of various political parties or factions or individuals, and it's acted as a megaphone for their views. So in Cambodia, for the last 25 years of Cambodian history, when we see a plurality of political parties, that's when we tend to see a plurality of media voices. And as the CPP of Hun Sen have gradually consolidated their control, so too have they taken over control or co-opted various media outlets, radio stations, newspapers and TV channels. And so I think actually, you know, I am actually quite optimistic today.

I think that there is a large number or growing number of Cambodian journalists who are independent now. And that is, to a large extent, because of the space created by the English language newspapers here, which provide valuable training for young Cambodian journalists, and radio stations such as VOA and RFA, and certain NGOs that provide media training as well. And I think the number of Cambodian journalists who understand the role of an independent media and are willing to play it and are really willing to challenge power here from an impartial, objective position is growing. I think in the long run there is a lot to be optimistic about.

I think your book has caught a lot of attention from local people in Cambodia and outside Cambodia. So what do you think of the public interest on your book?

Well, the public interest has been significant in Cambodia. I know that a lot of young Cambodian students are very interested in when the book is coming out, and they are asking via Facebook and on email where they can buy a copy. And it will be interesting to see the effect it has. In Phnom Penh today, there are more young people who speak English than anytime in Cambodian history. And you know, I am hoping that my book manages to stimulate debate and reach a lot of this young, Cambodian educated population. And hopefully, at some points in the future, we will be able to do a Khmer translation, although that's not in the cards yet.