Features | Politics | Southeast Asia

Hun Sen’s Battle for Middle Earth

Cambodia has certainly endured its share of turbulent times. Its long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen will soon go to the polls. The Diplomat profiles him here.

Luke Hunt

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.

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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.

A Pagoda Boy with a Puritan Streak

Prudish with a famous temper, Hun Sen was born in August 1952, the third of six children in central Cambodia. At age 12 he moved to Phnom Penh to study while living in a pagoda, a common practice for impoverished children who come in from the countryside to study.

A few years later, when the Khmer Rouge were in the ascendancy, he became a foot soldier and rose to the rank of deputy regional commander as the ultra-Maoists seized control of the country in 1975 and embarked on their bloody reign of terror. He married Bun Rany, a field nurse, a year later in a mass ceremony.

Under Pol Pot, the communists divided the country into sections and Hun Sen was deployed to the Eastern Region of Democratic Kampuchea, as it was called during the Khmer Rouge era, an area near the Vietnamese border that had largely escaped the massive purges and executions. He lost his left eye during a firefight and says his sight is now limited to 200 meters.

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As the death toll mounted, so did Khmer Rouge defections. The eastern zone of what was then Democratic Kampuchea was targeted by Communist leaders, prompting Hun Sen to flee to Vietnam where Hanoi was tiring of Pol Pot’s cross-border incursions and was assembling a force of troops opposed to the Khmer Rouge.

The Vietnamese-backed offensive was launched over Christmas 1978 and was completed two weeks later. The Khmer Rouge was pushed into the country’s isolated northwest from where they maintained a low-level civil war for the next two decades.

Hun Sen was rewarded and fast-tracked through the ranks of the Vietnamese-installed government, becoming foreign minister in 1979 and the world’s youngest prime minster in 1985 at age 33.

In the 1980s, he survived at least three attempts on his life and was a constant target for assassination by the Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge and Western-supported insurgencies that had coalesced along the Thai border and put aside their intense loathing of the ultra-Maoists to fight a common enemy — a Vietnamese-sponsored regime.

It was a battle that lasted until 1989 and the end of the Cold War. A United Nations intervention aimed at building a democracy followed Vietnam’s withdrawal and Hun Sen then took the biggest gamble of his political career, convinced he would win the 1993 election. But when he lost, his mean streak emerged.

Hugely embarrassed, he refused to accept the results. Through his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), he maintained control of the military and a 100,000-strong bureaucracy forcing the UN — which had failed in its mandate to disarm the warring parties — to negotiate.

A cohabitation government was formed with Prince Norodom Ranariddh of the royal Funcinpec Party as First Prime Minister and Hun Sen as second.

Prince Ranariddh tapped into the wealth of support commonly reserved for his father and the agreement was only struck after King Sihanouk intervened and sponsored negotiations. The King also bestowed on Hun Sen the title of “Samdech”, meaning “Lord”.

But the alliance was a disaster from the start. Hun Sen used his forces to oust Ranariddh in 1997 and won violence-marred elections a year later. In similar fashion, Hun Sen rounded up the Khmer Rouge, amid mass defections, and finally ended decades of war in late 1998.

Only then could the marathon efforts to put Pol Pot's surviving henchmen on trial for war crimes begin.

Over the next decade Hun Sen’s political opponents were handled with ruthless efficiency, while the prime minister maintained a public face of respectability, as peace took root. Opposition leader Sam Rainsy still lives in self-imposed exile in France.

During this period, Hun Sen ended illegal television broadcasts by pornography channels. In routine crackdowns on the capital's risqué nightlife, he ordered women to wear dresses with hems below the knees. Bars were closed and at times he even banned Western music and dance.

Hun Sen holds the UN responsible for introducing AIDS into Cambodia during the early 1990s and is prone to exaggerating his golf handicap. More than 300 schools bear his name and he loathes being referred to as a former Khmer Rouge cadre. Like many others, he had little choice but to join.

The Push for Strategic Influence

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In recent years, Hun Sen has played a rough game of international diplomacy. He has pushed Cambodia firmly within China’s sphere of influence, providing a buffer between U.S. ally Thailand and Vietnam, a traditional enemy of both Cambodia and China.

He recently signed a military deal with Beijing. The Asahi Shimbun reported that "Cambodia will use part of a $195 million loan from China to buy 12 of its military helicopters and boost its tiny fleet…"

This was not quite what Western nations had in mind when they first reappeared in Cambodia alongside the UN with generous offers of aid. However, Hun Sen says he tires of Western carping over Cambodia’s human rights record and claims Chinese aid and soft loans arrive with no strings attached.

That is questionable. Last year, as Phnom Penh took its turn as chair of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), Cambodia acquiesced on regional unity and backed Beijing over its stand on the South China Sea.

This split ASEAN like never before and brought Cambodia into direct opposition with fellow members the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei, which have competing maritime claims with China in the disputed seas.

Such a stand raised Cambodia’s diplomatic profile but proved costly in terms of relations with its nearest neighbors, prompting reminders that the last time China held such sway over Cambodian foreign policy was during the dark days of the Khmer Rouge.

As a result, Cambodia is walking a political tightrope. This has the added dimension of Washington’s rebalancing of power into East Asia. Further complicating matters is the record of Hun Sen’s government, which includes long-standing accusations of corruption and excessive use of violence. Indeed former King Sihanouk had long charged that the government’s addiction to easy money had made Cambodia dependent on donors.

Hun Sen’s greatest asset — as even his opponents acknowledge -– was that he secured what this country needed most–peace. But Cambodia’s dark past is now consigned to the history books. If Hun Sen truly is in control then he needs to combat corruption, end the culture of impunity and punish those who have committed horrendous crimes of their own in more recent years.