Strongman's Strongman: 30 Years of Cambodia's Hun Sen

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 1/16/2015 01:30:00 AM
He traded a walk-on part in the war for a [30-year] lead role in a [Cambodian] cage.
This year marks the thirtieth that Hun Sen has been the prime minister of Cambodia. He is the sixth-longest tenured world leader after, er, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. There have been  (count 'em!) 33 that preceded him, but once he assumed office, he's held on no matter what. For what it's worth, he sought refuge in Vietnam at the height of the Khmer Rouge and subsequently returned to oust those murderous folks. The Khmer Rouge were undoubtedly brutal, killing at least 2 million of their own people in the four years they were in power. For helping oust the Khmer Rouge, all civilized people the world over owe a debt of gratitude to Hun Sen.* However, there remains a fairly huge asterisk on this claim since Hun Sen himself has not been a particularly savory leader in the aftermath.

To commemorate thirty years of Hun Sen in power, Human Rights Watch came out with a scathing indictment of his (mis)rule:
The 67-page report, “30 Years of Hun Sen: Violence, Repression, and Corruption in Cambodia,” chronicles Hun Sen’s career from being a Khmer Rouge commander in the 1970s to his present role as prime minister and head of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). The report details the violence, repression, and corruption that have characterized his rule under successive governments since 1985.

Hun Sen has ruled through violence and fear. He has often described politics as a struggle to the death between him and all those who dare to defy him. For example, on June 18, 2005, he warned political opponents whom he accused of being “rebels” that “they should prepare coffins and say their wills to their wives.” This occurred shortly after he declared that Cambodia’s former king, Norodom Sihanouk, who abdicated to express his opposition to Hun Sen’s method of governing, would be better off dead.

In a speech on August 5, 2009, he mimicked the triggering of a gun while warning critics not to use the word “dictatorship” to describe his rule. On January 20, 2011, responding to the suggestion that he should be worried about the overthrow of a dictator in Tunisia at the time of the “Arab Spring,” Hun Sen lashed out: “I not only weaken the opposition, I’m going to make them dead ... and if anyone is strong enough to try to hold a demonstration, I will beat all those dogs and put them in a cage.”
So Hun Sen is not a cuddly guy; us Southeast Asians kind of figured that out early on in his tenure. I am not exactly contesting HRW's claims that he's done some fairly nasty things over the years. That said, there are extenuating circumstances. Would the same national political circumstances that gave risk to the Khmer Rouge become all lovey-dovey afterwards? Hun Sen's contention has always been that you need to be tough to survive as Cambodia's leader. Recently:
In a speech marking the ceremonial completion of the country's longest, 2,200-metre Japanese-funded bridge across the Mekong River yesterday, the 62-year-old Hun Sen defended his record, saying that only he was daring enough to tackle the Khmer Rouge and help bring peace to Cambodia.
"If Hun Sen hadn't been willing to enter the tigers' den, how could we have caught the tigers?" he said. He acknowledged some shortcomings, but pleaded for observers to see the good as well as the bad in his leadership.
It's a fair point way back when, although you have to question whether Cambodian  development has been hamstrung by having Hun Sen in power for so long. He's been adaptable to shifting political tides: allying with Vietnam to dislocate the Khmer Rouge but moving closer to China afterwards as the latter grew in power. His viciousness is reflected in the United Nations power-sharing agreement struck with Cambodia's royalty, which prompted him to dispose of Prince Ranariddh shortly thereafter. The aftermath wasn't pretty:
A U.N. report in August 1997 confirmed summary political executions of 41 opponents to Mr. Hun Sen, including Interior Ministry Secretary of State Ho Sok, who was killed inside his ministry. In a November 1997 BBC documentary, Mr. Hun Sen laughed off the damning U.N. findings. “There are probably no more than 50 people in Cambodia who have read the report. There are 11 million people in Cambodia. They don’t understand what the human rights report is about,” he said.

“What the U.N. says doesn’t bother me. The problem is my people and whether they support me.” The U.N.’s human rights office in Phnom Penh reported a further 16 political killings in the two months before the July 1998 national election, which the CPP won, legitimizing Mr. Hun Sen’s power and allowing him to return as Cambodia’s sole prime minister...Asked in 1998 what the U.N. had given Cambodia five years before, Mr. Hun Sen said “AIDS.”
The point about support from the international community being secondary to domestic support well taken. Ultimately, Hun Sen is the strongman's strongman--a canny political operator in Cambodia's literally murderous environment. There is a case to be made reminiscent of any number of Middle Eastern countries that have gotten rid of their longtime leaders: So you can get rid of strongmen with the tacit approval of the West, but will these countries be any better off afterwards? This is not always the case as any number of Middle Eastern countries have demonstrated.

How long would a soft-in-the-middle democracy lover last in Cambodia? I guess with Hun Sen still around, we will not really know the answer for quite some time for better or worse.