Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s record of 38 years in power is currently exceeded by only three African despots. The presidents of Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon, and Uganda, Théodoros Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, Paul Biya, and Yoweri Museveni, have all held power for longer than Hun Sen. Like him, they are political fossils who have done their countries more harm than good.
Mere political longevity is not enough to satisfy Hun Sen. His aim is to establish a North Korean-style dynasty under which his descendants will continue to hold power. Hun Sen is currently attempting to manage a succession to power of his eldest son to take place after the elections scheduled for July.
He has even publicly said that after becoming the father of a prime minister, he later wants to become the grandfather. Such a dynasty would simply perpetuate absolute power and the impunity which accompanies it. In economic terms, the plan amounts to state capture by a family which is giving itself a license to prey on the resources of a whole country.
Secrets of Hun Sen’s Political Longevity
To stay in power for almost four decades, Hun Sen has displayed two essential “qualities.”
The first is a total absence of principle, allowing him to project opposites: “dictatorship of the proletariat” and “liberal democracy”; “communism” and “capitalism”, “Chinese-style people’s republic” and “British-style constitutional monarchy.”
The second is an ability to sail by sight and a readiness to change direction at any moment, the only objective being to remain in the post as captain of the ship. The approach shows no vision, and it hardly matters where the ship goes or what condition it is in, so long as the captain remains. In terms of the national interest, such an approach can only be damaging and is very often catastrophic.
Hun Sen is a former Khmer Rouge military commander who defected to Vietnam in 1977 to escape the internal military purges taking place under Pol Pot. Under the shadow of Vietnam’s occupation of Cambodia, he came to power. The former king Norodom Sihanouk, who led the resistance against Vietnam, compared him to Norway’s Quisling until the signature of the Paris Peace Agreements in 1991.
The elections organized by the United Nations in 1993 – the only authentic election which Cambodia has ever known – saw the victory of the royalist opposition party founded by Norodom Sihanouk. Hun Sen brandished the threat of secession and civil war to stay in power as “second prime minister.”
Then, through a coup d’état in 1997, he overthrew the legal prime minister and took his place. He also took control of the electoral commission to falsify the results of each subsequent election.
The means used by Hun Sen to hang on to power have included assassination, arbitrary imprisonment, persecution, and exile of anyone who opposes him. The only parliamentary opposition, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which, despite systematic government fraud, won 44 percent of the vote in national elections in 2013, was dissolved after achieving the same level of support in local elections in 2017.
The arbitrary dissolution of the CNRP effectively smashed the national constitution and the Paris accords. It returned Cambodia to a single-party system as during the last decade of the Cold War.
This allowed Hun Sen’s party, the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), to win 100 percent of the assembly seats in the 2018 national elections.
Cambodia’s fascist regime has the following characteristics:
- A police state (inherited from the Khmer Rouge)
- Hun Sen as the all-powerful leader, complete with his own personality cult
- A savage form of capitalism in which the largest fortunes are associated with political power
- Bloody repression of the opposition
- The systematic repression of unionized workers
- A king who is no more than a silent puppet accomplice
- A Buddhist clergy whose leading members are likewise complicit subordinates of the regime.
I denounced this “tropical fascism” in the French newspaper Libération in 2011. Norodom Sihanouk predicted its characteristics in a meeting with me while I was finance minister at the royal palace in 1994. “I am afraid that one day my fate will be that of the last king of Italy,” he told me.
After World War II, Italians rejected the monarchy because Victor Emmanuel III was seen as having been too soft on Mussolini. The danger of a slide towards Cambodian fascism, in Sihanouk’s eyes, was already clear.
The brutal shift from communism to capitalism after the end of the Cold War and the wild privatizations in favor of former communists allowed a Mafia state with fascist characteristics to emerge in Cambodia, as in Russia. Hun Sen invented himself as a tropical version of Putin.
Cambodia became a paradise for criminals sought by police the world over. It became a haven for illegal trafficking under state protection. Drugs, human trafficking, cyber slavery, and money laundering continue to flourish. The country has become a banana republic which is permanently near the foot of the international classifications of authoritarianism and corruption published by Transparency International, Amnesty International, Freedom House, and Reporters Sans Frontières.
False Economic Development
Hun Sen boasts of GDP growth of 6 percent to 7 percent over the last 10 to 15 years. The reality is that this growth is neither equitable nor sustainable. Cambodia has seen the world’s most rapid pace of deforestation. Many of the country’s lakes have been filled in for real estate development, leading to increased flooding during the rainy seasons. This stripping of the country’s natural resources has been for the benefit of Hun Sen and his cronies rather than for the people. Phnom Penh is awash with Rolls-Royce and Bentley cars but the bulk of the country’s population continues to live in abject poverty. The middle class remains fragile and rightly fears for its future.
The country’s population is the most indebted in the world in relation to income. Microcredit institutions have sprung up like mushrooms and lending has become a profitable industry that preys on misery. People borrow, not to expand a business, but to pay back other debts, or to meet immediate survival needs. The Cambodian state remains incapable of supplying them with any reliable public services in health, education or transport, and provides no kind of social safety net.
Many are forced to go abroad to countries such as Thailand where there are more than 2 million young Cambodians, compared with just 16 million people inside Cambodia. They are vulnerable to being unscrupulously exploited once they get there.
Inside Cambodia, meanwhile, the lack of rule of law has made the country a magnet for cyber slavery, with as many as 100,000 people estimated to have been lured from far and wide with the false promise of a well-paid job before being abducted and forced to “work” as online scammers.
The regime rules through fear rather than consent. That alone ensures that Hun Sen’s legacy is a time bomb that may explode at any time.