Cambodia’s Hun Sen: The Tiger That Rules the Mountain

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Cambodia’s Hun Sen: The Tiger That Rules the Mountain

The author of a new book on Cambodia reflects on the long career of the former PM and international attempt to foster democracy in a conflict-torn nation.

Cambodia’s Hun Sen: The Tiger That Rules the Mountain

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen speaks with workers at the Royal Group Phnom Penh Special Economic Zone in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, May 27, 2023.

Credit: Facebook/Samdech Hun Sen, Cambodian Prime Minister

Last month, Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen relinquished the country’s top office after more than 38 years at the helm, handing over power to his eldest son, Hun Manet. Coinciding with the handover of power, part of a generational transition within Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), was the release of  “A Tiger Rules the Mountain: Cambodia’s Pursuit of Democracy,” a new book about contemporary Cambodia by Gordon Conochie, a former journalist and long-time resident of Phnom Penh.

The book examines the subversion of the country’s democratic institutions, particularly since the election of 2013, when opposition forces came close to unseating the CPP. Conochie, now an adjunct research fellow at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, spoke with The Diplomat about the ingredients of Hun Sen’s longevity, the self-perpetuating nature of the system that his son now heads, and what can be expected under the country’s new leadership.

Your book’s publication fortuitously coincided with a generational watershed in Cambodian politics: Prime Minister Hun Sen’s resignation as prime minister and the accession of his son Hun Manet to the country’s top office. How would you characterize Hun Sen’s legacy during his 38 years in power, both domestically and internationally? What do you think best explains his remarkable longevity and political durability?

It’s easy to characterize Hun Sen as an uncouth, rural farm boy with the aggressive traits of a soldier, especially when compared to his nemesis Sam Rainsy, who is portrayed as urbane and intellectual. But you don’t stay in power for 38 years without being extremely smart. He’s avoided international intervention, controlled the key levers of power domestically, and, crucially, balanced competing interests within his own party.

The recent transition is a perfect example of how he manages to keep all of the major players in the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) content. His son is taking the top job but the sons or daughters of all the other major players are also getting key roles. The outgoing defense minister has been replaced by his son, as has the outgoing interior minister. The daughter of the former industry minister is now the commerce minister and the son of the outgoing Senate president has become land management minister.

Everybody gets a piece of the pie, evident by the number of people appointed deputy prime ministers, so that their interests are served by continuing the status quo rather than risking division and upset. Hun Sen made sure he had trusted relatives leading the police and army and built dependence on his network by supporting the marriage of his children with those of other leaders. The future of all became intertwined with his own.

This meant Hun Sen’s leadership went unquestioned as people vied for his favor rather than coalesce against him.

Over the years, there were three important moments when he chose to exert power at the right moment, which cemented his control rather than provoke disunity. In 1997, after Hun Sen’s forces had defeated Funcinpec’s, he acted immediately to take control of the police and army, reducing the influence of CPP President Chea Sim. This laid the foundation for his ultimate control, which he laid bare when forcing Chea Sim out of the country with a police escort in 2004. The 2013 election could have rocked his authority but he forced significant changes, bringing in capable, technocrats to lead reform, and took greater leadership in campaigning.

Of course, it makes it easier to maintain power when you control the police, courts, and army, but it is some trick to control all of these for so long.

The international context is also vital. In “Tiger,” a senior U.N. official talks about how Hun Sen’s government targeted the use of oppression and violence to have maximum impact without drawing too much international attention.

Cambodia of the 1990s was nothing compared to Rwanda, Liberia, or the Balkans. The anarchy of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia consumed the world in the new millennium, and Cambodia’s protests were incomparable to the raging wars in Libya and Syria in the 2010s. As a U.N. official told me, when you compare Cambodia to other countries, there are serious problems but not as terrible as elsewhere. Hun Sen has judged it perfectly how to maintain control domestically without provoking international intervention.

What impact, if any, do you think the transition handover from Hun Sen to his son will have on the tenor of Cambodian politics? What can we expect from Manet as PM, and why?

There is a certain cultural arrogance that goes with hopes that Hun Manet must be a democrat because he is intelligent and was educated in the West. It’s akin to believing that people will be converted if they could only experience the virtues of our democracy, becoming one of “us.” Manet, though, is unlikely to disregard the family and culture he grew up in.

Being more educated doesn’t automatically make you more democratic. Donald Trump was educated at a top university in America but doesn’t display the best democratic traits. Bashar al-Assad of Syria was an ophthalmologist in London before killing half a country.

Even though Manet is prime minister, Hun Sen will still wield ultimate power for the next few years. He will remain president of the CPP and become president of the Senate, who acts as head of state when the king is absent, so there will not be any changes in the short term to how Cambodia is governed. Plus, Hun Sen and Hun Manet both appear to share the same vision for Cambodia as being something like Singapore – economically developed but politically authoritarian.

That said, Hun Manet, is not his father and there will be a change in tenor if not substance. Hun Sen speaks aggressively, brutally even, which contrasts with the sweetness of tone that all Cambodians love about Sinn Sisamouth, their revered pop star from the 1960s. Hun Manet is much more traditionally Cambodian in this regard and can appear bashful even. Will his be an iron fist in a velvet glove?

A big question for a lot of observers, particularly in Western capitals, has been the issue of the country’s future foreign alignments, which in recent years have tilted very far toward China. Do you see any change on this front?

Cambodians say that you can tell their international alignment by the languages they have to learn. It was French before the Khmer Rouge, Vietnamese and Russian in the 1980s during the communist years, English in the 1990s as the U.N. and Western aid poured in. Korean and Japanese became fashionable in the early 2000s as their investment grew, but now it is Chinese.

The weight of Chinese investment in Cambodia will continue building on the huge presence it already has, meaning the relationships at a commercial level become ever more entrenched. And in Cambodia, the commercial leaders are siblings, children, and spouses of the political leaders. This will ensure that Cambodia retains close political links with China.

The interesting question is not whether it’s China vs the U.S. in Cambodia, but how Cambodia manages its relations with ASEAN members, particularly Vietnam, who are in dispute with China in the South China Sea. I think Cambodia will prioritize its relationship with China while aiming to keep working relations in ASEAN.

Over the past decade – the period predominantly covered by your book – the degree of freedom enjoyed by Cambodian civil society, opposition parties, and the independent press has narrowed significantly. Once-competitive elections have devolved into acclamatory exercises designed to ratify continued rule by the Cambodian People’s Party. What do you think accounts for the repressive shift?

Hun Sen decided he would do everything necessary to keep power. He laid this bare when he said he was prepared to kill 200 people, presumably opposition leaders, if it meant him maintaining order and control.

The 2013 election viscerally shocked him and the CPP broadly when they very nearly lost their grip on the country. They underestimated the disaffection with their government and were surprised by the uprising when Sam Rainsy returned from abroad just prior to the election. They decided that they could not risk that again, so they began to dismantle the pillars of support for the opposition: trade unions, an independent media, a free civil society, and a world of social media that the opposition rallied on.

These are, of course, pillars of democracy, but Hun Sen’s belief in the righteousness of his rule overrode any belief in the benefits of democracy.

It was, therefore, just the next step required when Kem Sokha, the leader of the opposition was arrested and the opposition party banned. It was needed to be done to keep power, so Hun Sen had no qualms in doing it.

In some ways, Hun Sen’s success stands as a repudiation of the idea, once ascendant at the end of the Cold War, that the world was trending, if sometimes haltingly, in the direction of liberal democratic forms of government. What lessons can and should Western democracies draw from the experiment to foster democratic norms and institutions in Cambodia?

The biggest lesson should be that there is nothing inevitable about democracy occurring. It does not just appear because people become more educated or wealthy. Education and wealth may produce conditions that give opportunity for democracy to grow, but it still needs people pushing for it and respecting it. Cambodia’s GDP has grown by over 1,000 percent in 30 years and it is now a lower-middle income country, but Cambodia is less democratic than it was.

If countries want to foster democracy within Cambodia, then they need to actively support those people trying to foster it: free media, trade unions, human rights lawyers, youth development organizations. This cannot be done half-heartedly though; supporters must provide a counterweight to other influences in Cambodia, which are significant. Countries need to get serious about what it takes to support democracy.

Secondly, the West needs to improve itself. There is a conceit that everybody automatically wants to live like us but the turbulence and poor government in Western democracies over the last 20 years makes people in Asia question this. How does America, riven by debt, social failings, and political war, compare to a transforming China, which is scraping the skies with development? How does Britain, after invading Iraq, crashing economically, and stumbling through Brexit, compare to well-managed, orderly, gleaming Singapore? Currently, the West is no role model and it has also removed democratic freedoms, giving cover for governments like Cambodia to do likewise.

One of the challenges of assessing the “Hun Sen era” is whether to take an absolute or relative measure of the country’s progress. Hun Sen’s opponents, and by definition human rights activists, use the former benchmark, highlighting the repression and coercion that has attended Hun Sen’s consolidation of power, whereas his supporters tend to contrast the country’s economic progress favorably with the country’s history of conflict and revolutionary violence. Where do you fall on this question? Do Hun Sen and his methods resemble those of earlier Cambodian leaders in any way?

I was living in Cambodia when former King Sihanouk died and witnessed the overwhelming grief at his funeral. Many friends and colleagues were in tears during those days after he passed. There were a few Cambodians I knew, however, who did not grieve. They remembered the violence that Sihanouk used against his own people to crush opposition and dissent. He locked opponents up, ordered the beatings and deaths of others, banned opposition parties, sent people into exile, and held an election where only candidates from his party were allowed to stand.

Last year, I asked a CPP supporter, who is not blind to the failings of the government, whether Hun Sen, who defeated the Khmer Rouge and took Cambodians from the world’s poorest to modern prosperity, will experience the same love and adulation when he meets nature’s time. The man turned to me, smiled, and shook his head.