Hun Sen’s Battle for Middle Earth
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Hun Sen’s Battle for Middle Earth

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PHNOM PENH – Cambodia has never enjoyed the kind of political clout its neighbors Thailand and Vietnam have been able to assert on the international stage. This issue does not sit well with Prime Minister Hun Sen, who wants to see his country’s standing improve significantly.

But the key to raising Cambodia’s stature is Hun Sen’s own success. After 28 years in power, he is by far the region’s longest-serving elected leader.

His autocratic style and a pronouncement that he would like to stay in power until he is 90 has won Hun Sen stately comparisons with Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew from his friends…and less flattering parallels with Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe by his critics.

With the recent passing of Cambodia’s former monarch Norodom Sihanouk — a constant political and royal figure in Cambodian life for the last 70 years — and the bullying of opponents out of electoral prominence, the 60-year-old premier now stands alone.

He likes to remind Cambodians and foreigners alike that only he controls the military and the police, and that the stability he delivered after ending three decades of war in 1998 has underpinned the economic growth that is raising living standards across the country.

That assumption of control gnaws at human rights activists and civil society groups who squarely blame Hun Sen for the ills that have afflicted Cambodia during the last 15 years of peace.

And there are many.

Corruption, electoral-related violence and a culture of impunity among the politically connected and well-heeled has created a rift between his government and the overwhelming majority of Cambodians whose daily lives are still dictated by a hand-to-mouth existence.

The killing of a high profile environmentalist and the jailing of a broadcaster for 20 years in 2012 raised the tempo on Cambodia’s human rights violations, which was a major focus during last November’s visit by Barack Obama — the first trip to this country by a sitting U.S. president.

“Hun Sen does get blamed for every ill that blights this country but how much he really knows about what his subordinates do and what he does about it — or what he does not do about it -– remains tightly guarded,” said one long-term observer.

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