Cambodia Marks 30 Years Under Hun Sen’s Rule Amid Uncertain Future

Three decades on, the strongman shows few signs of relinquishing power anytime soon.

On January 14, Cambodia will mark three decades under the rule of its prime minister Hun Sen, making him the world’s sixth-longest serving political leader.

Few would contest that surviving this long as Cambodia’s leader is a feat, except perhaps Hun Sen himself who has ambitiously vowed to rule until at least 2026. Since coming to power in 1985 with Vietnamese support following the brief but brutal reign of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia’s cunning one-eyed premier has skillfully played his domestic opponents against one another and extracted resources from the international community to preserve his power.

If the yardstick is the Khmer Rouge, which left the country in tatters, then Hun Sen deserves credit for slowly restoring political stability and rebuilding the country following the carnage of the 1970s and a bloody coup in 1997 that consolidated his power. Pretty much anything, though, looks good next to the Khmer Rouge and the civil war that preceded it. That has not stopped Hun Sen from constantly reminding Cambodians of his ruling Cambodian People’s Party’s (CPP) feats. In his New Year’s message to the nation released December 29, Hun Sen once again touted his government’s “huge achievements,” including order and stability, improved living standards, and working infrastructure.

Those claims are proving tougher to back up as time goes by, as Sebastian Strangio points out in his recent biography of Hun Sen. While rich tycoons plunder the country’s resources through intricate patronage networks, many regular Cambodians remain unhappy with their living standards, with basic services like education and healthcare still inadequate. Infrastructure has been built, but widespread concerns about environmental degradation and land grabs have been brushed aside. And while Cambodia continues to boast a vibrant civil society and free English-language press relative to some of its mainland Southeast Asian counterparts, rights continue to be suppressed on an alarming scale, as Human Rights Watch illustrates in a fresh report released on January 13.

Cambodians do crave peace and prosperity, but even they can see Hun Sen’s rule fraying at the edges. Little surprise, then, that his iron grip on power has loosened somewhat in recent years, with the opposition making unprecedented gains in the 2013 elections despite the widespread belief that the polls were rigged in the CPP’s favor. Hun Sen’s prospects in the 2018 elections could be dimmer still, though he has made it clear from both his record and his rhetoric that he has no intention of relinquishing power peacefully.

Prior to elections in 2008, Hun Sen famously declared that “no one can defeat Hun Sen, only Hun Sen can defeat Hun Sen.” As he continues to prolong his rule and plant the seeds for his own eventual demise, that quote could actually prove serendipitous in due course.