Hun Sen hints strongman days are far from over

Cambodia’s Hun Sen is the Indo-Chinese nation’s most famous politician, a man revelling in his despotic image. But as Cambodians wonder aloud about his successor, Chris Pritchard considers the wily leader’s plans to occupy the hot seat for another decade.

The past may have a habit of coming back to bite you but sometimes personal history doesn’t seem to matter. Just ask Hun Sen, Asia’s ultimate ‘Teflon man’.

Cambodians, both Hun Sen’s opponents and supporters, often use ‘Teflon’— the world’s best-known brand of polytetrafluoroethylene, the active component of non-stick cookware—to describe his apparent immunity to bad news. Mud flung at him or his government doesn’t stick. Instead, it slides off harmlessly.

The 63-year-old strongman, Cambodia’s best known politician, has dominated the Southeast Asian nation’s political scene for more than three decades, mostly as prime minister. One of Asia’s longest-serving leaders, he certainly isn’t poised to step down.

A Khmer New Year holiday in 2014 saw Hun Sen reminding Cambodia’s populace of his lengthy period in office as he jovially shared a slice of  the world’s biggest sticky rice cake—a four-tonne monster—with arch-foe and opposition leader Sam Rainsy at Angkor Wat. The globally renowned ruins are particularly special reminders of the nation’s bygone greatness, depicted on Cambodia’s national flag and the country’s number-one tourist attraction. But this meeting of two bitter rivals certainly didn’t signal a rapprochement. It was merely another day in politics, after which unconcealed mutual dislike almost immediately returned.

FALSE DAWN: Khmer Rouge soldiers driving into Phnom Penh in 1975
FALSE DAWN: Khmer Rouge soldiers driving into Phnom Penh in 1975

Rainsy, now parliamentary opposition leader, is no longer widely seen as a future prime minister. Instead, analysts agree he’s had his day. His star is on the wane. A strident anti-corruption campaigner, he is now back in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh after living in France. He is co-founder of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, with which his former Sam Rainsy Party has announced it will merge. Rainsy’s Parisian interlude was sparked by a string of Hun Sen-inspired criminal defamation charges, including an allegation that Hun Sen was involved in the 2004 murder of union leader and pro-Rainsy activist Chea Vichea.

Cambodia is officially democratic but Hun Sen’s domestic critics, along with foreign human rights advocates, insist this ‘democracy’ is deeply flawed. Since an Amnesty International investigation in 1987 concluded the government used torture by ‘electric shocks, hot irons and near-suffocation with plastic bags’, other accusations have focused on alleged graft involving senior politicians, corruption at all levels of government, disdain for human rights, quashing of dissent and rigging elections, plus arrests, assaults and intimidation of those opposed to official policies. A recent Human Rights Watch report accuses Hun Sen’s administration of ruling through violence, ensuring the country’s security apparatus does governmental bidding and manipulating election results.

None of this fazes Hun Sen. In fact, he sees himself as staying in the top job for more than another decade, pledging in a recent interview that he’ll step down after he turns 74. Unless he changes his mind and retires from politics sooner (which is unlikely), loses an election (even more unlikely, considering his ruling Cambodian People’s Party is considered unassailable, despite reduced popularity attributed to elector fatigue) or has his power terminated by illness or political violence (a similarly unlikely scenario), Hun Sen will remain a pivotal political figure.

It is perhaps strange, therefore, that so many conversations in Cambodia focus on who will succeed Hun Sen.

With Hun Sen running the country, the monarchy under revered King Norodom Sihamoni, 62, is content to remain aloof from political involvement in accordance with Cambodia’s constitutional monarchy status. This is a sharp shift into the background from the role played by the present king’s father, the late King Norodom Sihanouk, an eccentric extrovert who couldn’t resist sharing his views on matters as diverse as domestic politics and film-making in Third World countries, often through his website. Head of state King Norodom Sihanouk and Prime Minister Hun Sen often disagreed.

The current king, however, involves himself more in cultural and developmental matters. He spearheaded the reconstruction, by a French archaeological team, of the collapsed ancient temple of Baphuon at Angkor Wat and was guest of honour at its gala reopening four years ago. The non-controversial nature of the king’s involvements suits Hun Sen and his acolytes.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of Hun Sen’s history is his enthusiastic embrace of the xenophobic Khmer Rouge (led by French-educated Pol Pot, known as ‘Brother number one’), which ruled the country with razor-wire ruthlessness from 1975 to 1979. Hun Sen has consistently maintained he became disillusioned with the Khmer Rouge very soon after the Maoists seized power. It quickly dawned on him that these were not the well-intentioned socialist intellectuals they claimed to be, supporting Cambodian nationalism and improving the lot of downtrodden peasants.

If his stated position is an accurate recollection, he was hardly alone. Ecstatic crowds thronged Phnom Penh’s boulevards to welcome the black-clad Khmer Rouge, unaware that within hours cities would be emptied and residents force-marched to rice fields where many died from starvation and other privations. The nation was cut off from the outside world, except for a weekly flight to China. Clocks and family photographs were banned as part of Pol Pot’s bizarrely insane quest to rebuild society from ‘Year Zero’. Surviving evidence comprises piles of human skulls, macabre monuments, often in Buddhist temple grounds, to a genocide in which an estimated two million people perished.

Torture centres were terrifyingly numerous. One of these, a former Phnom Penh high school named Tuol Sleng, has been transformed into a genocide museum chronicling Khmer Rouge butchery. Political prisoners were whipped with electrical cables for even the most petty infractions. Obsessive photography and record-keeping ensures a record of this barbarism endures.

It was a time of frequent purges. During one of these, in 1977, Hun Sen—commander of a Khmer Rouge battalion based near the Vietnam border in the east—fled, switching sides to join a ragtag army of Cambodians opposed to the Khmer Rouge. With vital Vietnamese backing, they managed to topple Pol Pot’s murderous regime.

This was the beginning of Hun Sen’s long political career. Vietnam installed the first post-Khmer Rouge government, making 27-year-old Hun Sen (real name Hun Bunal) Foreign Minister. The son of rice farmers whose paternal grandparents were Teochew Chinese, his political rise was meteoric.

While Hun Sen is justly credited with spurring economic recovery after Khmer Rouge devastation, he is also accused of authoritarianism, ruthlessness and minimal regard for human rights. Pro-government politicians have been embroiled in controversies encompassing corruption and assaults on supporters of smaller political groupings. Labour protests often bubble to the surface, mostly in the garment industry, with strikes or demonstrations related to pay and conditions. (Cambodia is a popular base for Taiwanese, Thai and Chinese garment producers because of its low costs.)

Hun Sen and his government have had no difficulty in overcoming such irritants. One recent controversy involved the arrest on August 15, 2014 of Hong Hok Hour, an opposition senator, for treason after he allegedly posted online a fake section of a 1979 border treaty with Vietnam. Amid the rough-and-tumble of Cambodian politics, it was important that Hun Sen move decisively and order the Sam Rainsy ally’s incarceration, because the Prime Minister is regarded by some of his opponents as a proxy for Vietnam.

The country’s substantial Vietnamese minority (estimated to be three per cent of the population, though this number’s accuracy is often disputed) is the target of occasional racist attacks. A local term for Vietnamese is yuon (one meaning of which is ‘barbarian’; many Vietnamese consider the word derogatory while Cambodians commonly respond that it’s an age-old term, fondly used). Some human rights advocates worry that Hun Sun’s allies will encourage hostility against the émigré Vietnamese to allow the Prime Minister to turn a blind eye and thereby reinforce his ‘independent’ Cambodian credentials.

With no obvious heir-apparent, Hun Sen seems set to continue dominating Cambodian politics. What’s more, the wily politician may well have an opportunity to retire as an elder statesman after his 74th birthday.

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