TEMPO.CO, Jakarta - On Friday morning, July 27, 2018, Tempo received a text message from the Indonesian Ambassador to Cambodia, Sudirman Haseng. The message said the Prime Minister of Cambodia, Hun Sen, is willing to spare his time for the state election observers and journalists from Indonesia on Saturday, July 28.
Journalists meeting and talking to Hun Sen is a rare opportunity. Hun Sen, one of the world's most controversial state leaders, has balked at being interviewed by journalists for the past 20 years. So, on Friday afternoon, July 27, Tempo began its pursuit of a chance for an interview with Hun Sen.
Despite being in the same region of Southeast Asia, the journey from Indonesia’s capital of Jakarta to Phnom Penh cannot be considered as a short journey since we had to fly to Singapore or Malaysia and spend another 4 hour-flight to reach Phnom Penh, not to mention the time-consuming flight transits.
Luckily, Tempo landed in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Saturday morning, July 28, just 30-minutes before the interview with Prime Minister Hun Sen began. Upon our arrival, a team from the Indonesian Embassy rushed us to the Cambodiana Hotel where the interview was planned to take place.
Just two minutes before the scheduled interview began, Hun Sen’s protocol surprised us with news we feared would happen: “There will be no interview with journalists,” said the protocol.
Hun Sen has ruled Cambodia over a span of 30 years and is said to have reigned the longest single term in the world. Throughout his leadership in the country, Hun Sen has stirred controversies, such as disbanding the country’s largest opposition party CNRP at the end of 2017, which was established by Sam Rainsy.
Hun Sen sent his political rivals behind bars and shut down the Cambodia Daily for blasting his government.
Having ruled Cambodia for tens of years, Hun Sen, an ex-soldier, reaps criticism from the opposition for the lack of positive changes in the country. Cambodia has been listed as one of the poorest countries in the ASEAN region after Laos and Myanmar.
According to Qadir, a senior journalist in Cambodia who refused to publish his family name for safety reasons, Hun Sen is incapable of leading a nation.
The scrapped interview, which happened only one day prior to the Cambodian national election, did not stop Tempo from digging deeper into the issue. On Sunday morning of July 29, dozens of locals and international journalists from numerous news agencies was on standby at the 1697 polling station in the Kandal province, where Hun Sen and his wife, Bun Rany, was said to cast their votes.
As expected, Hun Sen’s security members did not leave a gap open prior to his arrival, but Tempo managed to ask the prime minister a question when his security personnel let their guard down momentarily as the pair arrived at the location.
“No, not here,” said Hun Sen to Tempo, answering the question whether he was confident to win the Cambodian election without the presence of a major opposition party. The situation turned hectic as several photojournalists tried to capture the moment of the prime minister’s arrival but was pushed back by security personnel.
Hun Sen’s security barricade was as tight as ever and aborted any chance for journalists to approach the country’s top man. The guards would push away anyone and anything blocking their path without disregard. Hun Sen was even seen undaunted on witnessing several reporters and photographers falling over the stony ground.
Several meters before Hun Sen entered his vehicle, Tempo approached the prime minister from the opposing side where Bun Rany was, which had less security.
“I am sorry but I cannot give a statement at a polling station. This corroborates the Cambodian government’s policy. Please understand it,” said Hun Sen, who immediately ignored the bombarding questions, including those asked by local journalists.
That was the last time Tempo saw Hun Sen in person at a public area. Following the encounter at the polling station, Cambodian People’s Party spokesman Suos Yara and the prime minister’s advisor Sry Thamrong said it was impossible to conduct an interview with Prime Minister Hun Sen, even if it is just for 20 minutes.
“It’s impossible,” said Suos Yara, multiple times.
The Cambodian People’s Party or CPP is the ruling party and Hun Sen’s main political backing throughout his career in office. Tempo’s hunt for an interview with Hun Sen did not stop at the 1697 polling station and continued to his official residence in the capital of Phnom Penh.
The environment and design of Hun Sen’s official residence reminded Tempo of the houses back home in Indonesia that are located in upper-class residences, such as Menteng or Pondok Indah in Jakarta. The prime minister’s house was equipped with high rising walls, which made it nearly impossible to have a quick look inside.
A feeling of tension suddenly struck as the tuk-tuk driver we rode with did not dare drop us in front of Hun Sen’s house. A local man kept trembling when taking a picture of Tempo with Hun Sen’s house as the background. The man just kept his mouth shut and did not say a word.
However, the buildup later changed into a feeling of relief after the guards at Huns Sen’s official residence were more than friendly when answering Tempo’s questions. They did not forget to express their gratitude for protecting a good boss as Hun Sen is.
Another guard revealed that it had been months since Hun Sen stayed at the official residence. Suos Yara did not respond when Tempo asked for Hun Sen’s whereabouts. Tempo’s attempt to meet Hun Sen in person in a public space has proved to be a difficult task, at least far more difficult than meeting with President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo.