PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – Long-serving Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen on Saturday inaugurated a monument marking the 1998 end of the threat from the communist Khmer Rouge movement, which ruinously ruled the country in the late 1970s and then carried on a guerrilla war.
The monument just north of Phnom Penh, the capital, is dedicated to what Hun Sen called his "Win-Win Policy," which saw the last two top Khmer Rouge leaders surrender in December 1998, eliminating the group as a political force and security threat.
Hun Sen, in his supreme military commander's uniform of a five-star general, said in a two-hour speech that he had "joined with other leaders and the people to turn our pitiful soil that used to be a killing zone into a safe land."
But the monument's highlighting the activities of Hun Sen makes clear that it is also a celebration of his legacy. The base of the 54-meter (177-foot) -tall structure has sculpted panels depicting various scenes in his life, including him sitting in a circle of villagers eating rice, leading a group of soldiers out of a forest and lecturing in front of a blackboard.
In the nationally televised speech to a crowd that officials claimed numbered 40,000, Hun Sen said the peace he helped achieve in 1998 helped unite the country "for the first time ever in its history," and brought peace and economic prosperity.
"Before, mothers often worried about their sons going to war, wives often worried about their husbands going to war and children often worried about their fathers going to war, but in the last 20 years there is no fear about war and people who used to have to evacuate themselves from fighting now don't need to move anywhere, and need not have a bunker under their homes to shelter in, either," he said.
Hun Sen's "Win-Win Policy" allowed most members of the Khmer Rouge to be incorporated into the government's military and bureaucracy in exchange for giving up the fight and defecting.
Hun Sen himself had once served with the Khmer Rouge, which seized power after a bloody 1970-75 civil war.
As the Khmer Rouge carried out brutal policies that led to the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians, he defected in 1977 to Vietnam, whose invasion ousted the Khmer Rouge from power in 1979. In 1985, he became prime minister, and this year vowed to serve 10 more years in office.
Hun Sen has kept himself in power largely through clever political maneuvering and often authoritarian actions, but recent years have seen his party's electoral popularity slip badly.
His ruling Cambodian People's Party won this year's general election, but only after the government-influenced courts dissolved the sole credible opposition party. That led in turn to a revival of criticism of Hun Sen's antidemocratic tendencies by Western nations, which also started to apply sanctions against his government.