Russia’s Joseph Stalin, Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu, and a host of South American dictators all excelled at building monuments to themselves. But with 20-20 hindsight they did look somewhat silly when times changed and statues came tumbling down.
Still, the egotistical notion that political leaders – popular or not, elected or not – should simply build an altar for their own glory and the adulation they feel they are owed once they have left the political arena never seems to go out of fashion.
North Korea’s dear leaders have excelled at this type of cultish behavior and now Cambodia’s legacy conscience prime minister, Hun Sen, appears headed down the same track.
Despite his dwindling popularity, the farm boy from Kampong Cham has formed a 20-man committee and enlisted the help of perhaps his favorite senator, Ly Yong Phat, who has donated a prime chunk of real estate, for construction of a memorial – 16 floors high.
The memorial will be built on 15 hectares on the peninsula that divides the Mekong River and Tonle Sap and stand as high as the nearby Sokha Hotel and dwarf the recently built statue of this country’s founding father and former monarch Norodom Sihanouk, whose immense popularity – even in death – remains a chief source of irritation for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
“We will build the win-win policy memorial monument in the center, and the ground floor will be an ordinary building to support the main monument that will be 50 meters to 60 meters high,” Chuch Phoeurn, a secretary of state at the Ministry of Culture, told The Cambodian Daily.
Those dimensions will ensure Hun Sen’s memorial can be viewed from the all-important vantage points along the riverfront. The irony is the CPP has polled poorly in the capital during elections and those with the best view of the site probably did not vote for Hun Sen.
The deployment of Ly Yong Phat will also raise eyebrows. His net worth has been put at far more than $1 billion. That includes the value of a massive property portfolio, rubber and sugar plantations.
Civil society groups and investigative journalists have linked his interests to land-grabbing and child labor exploitation on his estates.
Fears evoked by the “King of Koh Kong” as Ly Yong Phat is known, prompted the resignation of Hun Sen’s sister Hun Sinath at the Ministry of National Assembly-Senate Relations and Inspection in December.
She said the ministry “does not dare” to investigate allegations that Ly Yong Phat had abused rights of villagers on his estates.
“I cannot continue to work in a ministry that cannot find justice for people through the complaints system. I will step down from my position and from now on become a normal citizen,” Sinath wrote on her Facebook page.
ANZ Royal, a joint venture between ANZ Bank in Australia and colorful local business identity Kith Meng, publicly severed ties with Ly Yong Phat in January last year.
Since being returned to power with a substantially reduced margin in mid 2013 elections, the CPP has tripped and stumbled over its inability to shore up its support, particularly here in the capital and in the major provincial centers where the opposition has traditionally done well.
“These people are tone deaf. Instead of focusing on legacy and listening to all the wrong people Hun Sen should just focus on governing for all the people before the next election,” a local analyst, who declined to be named, said. “Otherwise they might lose.”
The next election is due in 2018.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt