A DYING DEMOCRACY?

Hun Sen, the former Khmer Rouge fighter, has become Asia’s longest-serving leader. Chris Pritchard looks at the means he has used to stay in power

Phsar Toul Tom Poung, Phnom Penh’s biggest market,is often referred to as the Russian Market, an informal namethat originated when ‘foreign experts’ from the former Soviet Union lived in this part of Cambodia’s capital. Not so long ago, second-hand AK-47 rifles could be bought forUS$10, while Chinese-made Type 72 landmines were a mere $3 each.

At a fabric outlet in the Russian Market, half a dozen British tourists sit on plastic stools, listening to a stall holder giving his opinion of Hun Sen. ‘He’s good for Cambodia,’the stallholder tells them. ‘He’s a strong leader.’ Hun Sen has been Prime Minister of Cambodia, where two out of three people are younger than 30, for 32 years. Most Cambodians have no experience of anyone other than Asia’s longest-serving leader.

The 65-year-old changed his name from Hun Banal to Hun Sen in 1972, two years after joining the xenophobic Khmer Rouge and becoming a military commander. Though motivated by their nationalism, their brutality quickly disillusioned him, and he fled with his men to neighbouring Vietnam. When the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in 1979 and toppled the Khmer Rouge, Hun Sen was appointed foreign minister. Elbowing lack-lustre colleagues aside, he soon took control of the government. He was only 32 when he became Prime Minister, then one of the youngest in the world.

The international community’s relief at the demise of the Khmer Rougecreated a favourable wind for Hun Sen, though doubts about his democratic credentials quickly surfaced. Amnesty International was accusing his government of systematic torture as far back as 1987, and a United Nations-supervised election in 1993 failed to loosen his grip, despite his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) coming second in the poll. While in theory co-prime minister in a power-sharing government, he remained in control, and has governed alone since 1998.

Hun Sen’s supporters say he has now presided over more than three decades of peace and economic development. While still one of Asia’s poorest nations, Cambodia’s key industries have flourished in recent years. Tourism has expanded rapidly, thanks to the key attraction of Angkor Wat’sancient ruins, whose silhouette appears on the national flag. The garment industry, meanwhile, flourishes by holding wages down, despite the resulting labour unrest. Rubber, rice and gold are also exported.

The skylines of the main urban centres, Phnom Penh, Battambang, Siem Reap, where visitors to Angkor Wat stay in scores of hotels, and the fast-developing beach resort of Sihanoukville, reveal considerable recent investment in the property sector. Much of this comes from China, Thailand, and overseas Chinese, including many from Taiwan.

Hun Sen and his allies point to the undoubted popularity of the Prime Minister and his party in certain quarters, and insist contemporary Cambodia is a democracy. But his opponents, including exiles and foreign organisations, detect an increasingly dictatorial streak, andmaintain it is becoming more blatant. They call Hun Sen a notorious autocrat presiding overendemic corruption, ranging from the equivalent of a dollar or two for basic services togigantic transgressions.

Investigators from Global Witness, a UK-based organisation which campaigns for transparency, traced corporate ownership of numerous entities linked to members of the Hun family(including Hun Sen himself and his wife, ex-nurse Bun Rany). The NGO’s analysis suggests the Prime Minister and his cronies have amassed vast fortunes through public contracts and state concessions.

The international community’s relief at the demise of the Khmer Rouge created a favourable wind for Hun Sen

Firms linked to the Hun family are spread across most of Cambodia’s more lucrative business sectors,including trade, finance, energy and tourism, according to Global Witness. Family members are allegedly quietly prominent within sectors ‘notorious for corruption, including gambling, construction, agriculture and mining’. A government-run petrochemical company is often accused of corrupt practices in marketing tickets to Angkor Wat, where it has a monopoly.

ANCIENT ATTRACTION: Angkor Wat has drawn increased numbers of tourists to Cambodia
ANCIENT ATTRACTION: Angkor Wat has drawn increased numbers of tourists to Cambodia

The deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, Phil Robertson, maintains Hun Sen displays ‘the mindset of a leader who’s forgotten that governments are supposed to help people’.Acouple of years ago he promised to step down when he reached the age of 74, but later spoke of retaining his position for at least another decade – because in his opinion nobody else could do it better.

There is speculation, however, over the Prime Minister’s health, which intensified when he went to a Singapore hospital earlier this year to be treated for a still-undisclosed ailment. Foreign critics and local opponents have increasingly been highlighting Hun Sen’s consistent refusal to name a successor. His response was: ‘If the Prime Minister dies, the armed forces are ready to take action’ in the absence of a government structure, adding menacingly:‘It’s better for Hun Sen to stay alive.If you pray for Hun Sen’s death, youwill also easily die.’But analysts suggest in the next year or two he could try to hand over to a technocrat, or engineer a dynastic succession by one of his seven children.

The skylines of cities such as Phnom Penh reveal recent investment in the property sector
The skylines of cities such as Phnom Penh reveal recent investment in the property sector

The opposition is not expected to be a problem. Sam Rainsy, the veteran critic of the Cambodian government and Hun Sen’s best-known opponent, has gone into exile – not for the first time. His successor, Kem Sokha, parliamentary leader of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), wasrecently arrested, charged with treason andtaken in handcuffs to the remote Correction Centre 3 on the Vietnamese border, where he remains. He lost an appeal to be freed from prison while awaiting trial.

Firms linked to the Hun family are spread across most of Cambodia’s more lucrative business sectors

The Defence Minister, Tea Banh, promised that proposed protest gatherings to call for Kem’s release would be suppressed ‘at all costs’. The Prime Minister, who is said to have told confidants he will destroy the CNRP, guided a controversial law through parliament, forbidding MPs from sitting as independents if their party ceases to exist.

The government has also stifled media criticism,closing 18 radio stations, including tworebroadcasting the Voice of America and Radio Free Asia. Cambodia Daily, one of the country’s two English-language newspapers,founded and partly funded by the Japan-based American journalist Bernard Krisher, a former Newsweek bureau chief, recently received a demand for $6.1 million in taxes, forcing it out of business.‘They’re trying to shut down all independent voices,’ said the editor, Jodie De Jonge. ‘We have been a burr in Hun Sen’s side.’

A headline writer called Cambodia a ‘dying democracy’. If and when it expires, Hun Sen is sure to be at the bedside.


Sydney-based journalist Chris Pritchard, a former BBC and Wall Street Journal correspondent, frequently visits Cambodia and other Asian destinations. His wife of more than 30 years is Cambodian

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