Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) walks with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen during a meeting at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh on October 13, 2016. Photo: AFP / Tang Chhin Sothy

When it comes to clinging to power, Hun Sen is probably the master. The Cambodian prime minister even surpasses retired or existing leaders of Vietnam, his past main backer, and of China, his present primary supporter, in terms of longevity in office.

With the backing of Vietnam, which intervened militarily in 1978 to overthrow the bloody Khmer Rouge regime, Hun Sen, a Khmer Rouge defector, rose to the premiership in 1985.

Ever since, through guile, manipulation and at times force, including a bloody coup in 1997, he has sought to tighten his grip on power.

Now 65, Hun Sen is the world’s longest-serving prime minister and among its longest-ruling leaders – alongside the likes of Angola’s José Eduardo dos Santos and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe.

On September 6, Hun Sen vowed to extend his reign for at least another decade. He explained that he had decided to stay “after witnessing the treasonous acts of some Cambodians in recent days”.

Chief among those accused of “treasonous acts” is Kem Sokha, president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). The opposition leader was arrested on September 3 and two days later charged with treason for “a secret plan and the activities of conspiracy”.

The CNRP did much better than expected in the 2013 general election, doubling its seats in the legislature to 55, while Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party won only 68 seats in the 123-seat parliament, a sharp fall from its previous tally of 90. The ruling CPP’s small margin of victory, coupled with widespread allegations of vote rigging, led many observers to believe that the opposition party had in fact won the election.

With its growing popularity, the CNRP, which also made considerable gains against the CPP in this June’s local elections, could win a landslide in next year’s general election, and that would spell the end of Hun Sen’s hold on power.

Fears about such a serious threat were widely seen as the real reason behind Kem Sokha’s arrest and Hun Sen’s threat to dissolve the CNRP.

Another notable target of the Hun Sen government’s crackdown has been The Cambodia Daily. That independent English-language newspaper, which was known for critical coverage of sensitive issues such as corruption, was forced to shut down because of allegedly fabricated charges of evading some US$6 million worth of taxes.

The 24-year-old paper, which was critical of Hun Sen and his government, published its final edition on the arrest of Kem Sokha this month with the headline “Descent into outright dictatorship”.

The regime has also ordered the closure of independent radio stations and non-governmental organizations.

Hun Sen has been accused of behaving dictatorially during his long reign. His decision to stay for another 10 years, the justification he gave – and the recent actions he has taken – to hold on to power all now strongly support such accusations.

By claiming that he is prolonging his premiership for the sake of Cambodia’s stability, he is thinking and behaving like a dictator. Autocratic leaders and regimes always claim that they are indispensable for their country, that without them, their nation cannot survive or prosper.

Just like any tyrant, Hun Sen also detests political opposition, independent media and civil society, and is apparently willing to use all means – including false claims and severe charges – to suppress or eliminate them.

The charges against Kem Sokha were based on a 2013 video in which the opposition leader spoke of bringing democratic change to Cambodia and told supporters of his party that he enjoyed US support and advice.

For that speech, Kem Sokha stands accused of “colluding with foreigners” and faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted.

Hun Sen’s accusations against Kem Sokha and some other Cambodians of being “puppets of foreigners” and his vow to fight against them are problematic, if not very ironic. His government now relies hugely on China, widely seen as his patron.

In recent years, Beijing has provided huge amounts of aid and loans that dwarf the contributions from the US. While Kem Sokha’s arrest was criticized by much of the international community, including the US and the European Union, China is the only country to have officially and repeatedly supported it.

However, China’s economic and political support is not free or unconditional. In return for Beijing’s assistance, Hun Sen aligns with China – and often acts as its proxy in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations – on key regional issues such as the South China Sea disputes.

A Chinese official was recently quoted as saying: “China would like to thank Samdech [meaning ‘Lord’ and part of Hun Sen’s full honorary six-word title, Samdech Akka Moha Sena Padei Techo] who always supports China’s core interests.” The energy-rich and strategically vital South China Sea is one of China’s core interests.

Without doubt, Beijing’s backing is an important reason behind Hun Sen’s current clampdown. With colossal investment and aid from the world’s biggest economy in recent years, he feels his country of 16 million no longer needs to rely on the US and other Western countries, which often tie aid to good governance, human rights and political freedoms.

It is possible that the strongman prime minister also seeks to perpetuate his reign because of his concern that, if he goes, members of his family are at risk. According to some international reports and organizations, such as the London-based campaign group Global Witness, his offspring and relatives, many of whom hold influential posts in government and business, have amassed fortunes. Yet the longer he stays, the bigger that risk is.

Moreover, by maintaining his reign and ruling with an iron fist, the former Khmer Rouge commander risks destroying some good legacies he has created. Under his tenure, Cambodia, a failed state after the genocide of the Khmer Rouge, was stabilized and somewhat transformed. Until recently, it had relatively free media compared with neighbors such as Vietnam and Laos.

At the moment, Cambodia remains one of Southeast Asia’s fastest-growing economies. But this could change quickly if his government’s harsh oppression alienates Western countries – notably EU members and the US, his country’s hitherto biggest trading partners.

The EU and the US account for about 70% of Cambodia’s garment and footwear exports. The garment and footwear industry, which generates about $7 billion annually, is seen as the backbone of the $20-billion economy.

Xuan Loc Doan

Dr Xuan Loc Doan researches and writes on a number of areas. These include the domestic and foreign policy of the UK, Vietnam and China, US-China relations and geopolitical issues in the Indo-Pacific region.

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