Hun Sen’s Battle for Middle Earth (Page 2 of 3)

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.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

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.

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.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief