People hold placards of Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen and his wife Bun Rany as they call for benefits to help workers after their textile factory was shuttered amidst the economic downturn in Phnom Penh on July 29, 2020. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

Questions are swirling around whether Cambodia’s prime minister, who celebrated 36 years in power this month, has been using taxpayer’s money to fund a television series about his life story.

This month also saw the publication of a new biography about his wife, Bun Rany, who controls much of the country’s charity sector including the Cambodian Red Cross. 

In the book, titled The Heart of the Saviour, Bun Rany is compared to the ancient Queen Preah Neang Chey Raja Devi, state-run media reports, a not-so-unsubtle way of portraying the Hun clan as Cambodia’s new ruling dynasty. 

As Hun Sen, 68, is now reportedly planning his political retirement, a difficult feat for a country that hasn’t known another leader for decades, it’s not clear whether the cult he has built around himself and his family will provide sufficient foundations for dynastic succession to one of his sons. 

One pillar of the cult is Hun Sen’s identification of himself with Sdech Kan, the so-called “peasant king” of 16th-century Cambodia, a commoner who ascended to the throne through force and political cunning.  

Hun Sen was also born into relative poverty before ascending to dominance in the 1980s as part of a group of Khmer Rouge who defected to Vietnam and returned to liberate the country from the genocidal regime in 1979, and then restored peace and national grandeur to a country that had descended into anarchy. 

Books and statues have been produced to make this comparison crystal clear. In 2006, Hun Sen financed and wrote the foreword to one lengthy book about  Sdech Kan. Ten years later, a biopic about the peasant king became Cambodia’s most expensively-produced film to date. 

He has also personally funded research into the historic figure, which revealed the pair were born not far from one another, and Hun Sen has noted publicly that they were also both born in the Year of the Dragon. 

Traditionally, the tale of Sdech Kan was a warning against bending the natural social hierarchy of commoners and royals. But under Hun Sen it became a positive tale, one deeply enmeshed with the other cult-like myths that have been constructed around his lengthy rule. 

Young Khmer Rouge fighters atop their US-made armored vehicles enter Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975. Photo: AFP/ SJOBERG/SCANPIX SWEDEN

Cambodia’s dark ages

King Norodom Sihanouk attained Cambodia’s independence in 1953, but shortly afterward stepped down to become a civilian politician, ruling the country almost single-handedly and single-mindedly between 1955 and 1970, when he was removed from power by the military leader Lon Nol. 

Cambodia then entered its dark ages. Lon Nol’s corrupt and incompetent regime was overthrown in 1975 by the Khmer Rouge, whose four-year genocidal rule led to a quarter of the population dying from execution, disease or starvation.  

Hun Sen, a Khmer Rouge commander, defected in 1977 along with many of the grandees who would form the now-named Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) in 1979, the year they returned with Vietnamese forces to overthrow the Pol Pot regime. First a foreign minister, he was named prime minister in 1985, aged only 33. 

Speaking to local media this month, Kin Phea, the director-general of the International Relations Institute at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, referred to events in 1979 as Cambodia’s “second birth.” 

If independence in 1953 was Cambodia’s “first birth,” a period marked by the cult of Norodom Sihanouk, then the country’s “second birth” after 1979 is marked by the cult of Hun Sen. 

“For the past 36 years, Cambodia has experienced countless obstacles, but the smart and experienced Cambodian leader has led the country toward development and progress in all areas with a good image on the international stage,” Hun Sen wrote on his Facebook page this month, referring to himself in the third-person as he usually does. 

On the one hand, the myths created by the events of Cambodia’s “second birth” are found within the “win-win” legend, Hun Sen’s lauded success in bringing an end to Cambodia’s civil war in the 1990s when the remnants of the Khmer Rouge fighting near the Thai border agreed to lay down their arms. 

Although this relies heavily on cherry-picking history, the dozens of “Win-Win” monuments constructed across Cambodia, funded by taxpayers, burnish his legacy as the national unifier, the only person who could end three decades of civil war.  

Cambodia’s new king, Norodom Sihamoni (R), next to Cambodia’s abdicated King Norodom Sihanouk (C) and Queen Norodom Monineath Sihanouk during a welcome ceremony at Phnom Penh airport on October 20, 2004. Photo: AFP/Pornchai Kittiwongsakul

Royalty survives

On another level, though, the “second birth” stands in direct opposition to the “first birth.” The first was led by Sihanouk, who despite abdicating the throne, continued with the traditional view that Cambodian affairs were dictated by the opinions of the royal elite. 

But Cambodia’s “second birth” was a non-royal affair, wherein commoners like Hun Sen, as the cult of Sdech Kan makes clear, rose up for the first time in centuries to take political power away from the royal elite. 

In fact, it also saved the monarchy, which was only restored in 1990, 20 years after it was dissolved by Lon Nol’s republic. 

But the royals were severed of any political power. Sihanouk, who retook the throne in the 1990s after spending decades in exile in Beijing, struggled to intervene in political matters, eventually retreating from the public towards the end of his life. 

His successor, Norodom Sihamoni, has followed the principles of a constitutional monarchy to the letter, almost never speaking publicly about political issues.

So much so, in fact, that exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy last month called Sihamoni a “puppet king” and demanded he abdicate if he refused to stand up for ordinary Cambodians against Hun Sen’s increasingly authoritarian rule. 

As such, the Hun cult not only seeks to symbolize the rise of a new ruling elite, of a political party of commoners and not a monarchy, but it also replaces the House of Norodom with a new ruling dynasty, the House of Hun. 

In some ways, the cult of the Hun family is similar to what one would find in any developing-world autocracy, a justification for how his family has amassed wealth and power through patronage.

His eldest son and likely heir, Hun Manet, was promoted to de-facto chief of the military in 2018, despite a lack of experience. Second son Hun Manith runs the Defence Ministry’s Intelligence Department and the youngest son, Hun Many, a parliamentarian, has dominated the country’s main youth “civil society” group, the Union of Youth Federations of Cambodia, for years. 

Hun Sen’s daughter, Hun Mana, has long been a key node to the business world, controlling a good number of Cambodia’s largest firms, many with exclusive contracts with Western suppliers. Look at any area of Cambodian life and chances are that the Hun family tree has dug its branches in.

Possible successor Aun Pornmoniroth, pictured in 2013 with then International Monetary Fund managing director Christine Lagarde. Photo: AFP/IMF/Stephen Jaffe

Creating a dynasty

But creating an autocratic dynasty is so not different from creating an absolute monarchy.

It requires a deifying founding myth, that being Cambodia’s “second birth” in 1979; a connection to a mythical past, which Hun Sen has found through appeals to the Sdech Kan cult; and importantly an idea of stable permanence, that whichever of Hun Sen’s sons possibly succeeds him will inherit the cult.

But Hun Sen’s succession plans have had some problems. 

In the middle of 2020, there were rumors that a slim majority in the CPP’s Permanent Committee, the ruling party’s elite decision-making body, was against a handover of power to Hun Manet, who reportedly was seen as inexperienced in political matters. 

Luke Hunt, a journalist who writes for The Diplomat, wrote in November that Minister for Economy and Finance Aun Pornmoniroth is now spoken of as a potential replacement once Hun Sen retires. It’s not clear if that is a genuine plan or a rumor put around to dispel speculation about Hun Manet.

Aun Pornmoniroth is considered something of a technocrat within the cabinet and a safe pair of hands. He also isn’t overly close to either Hun Sen or Sar Kheng, the interior minister since the early 1990s and the only real CPP grandee who could rival Hun Sen.

It is said that Aun Pornmoniroth could become the interim leader, handling matters as Hun Manet gains enough political experience and the party’s trust before he eventually takes power later on, reminiscent of the dynastic succession in Singapore in the 1990s. 

Often overlooked, too, is Hun Sen’s own aversion to thinking about a future without himself at the helm, perhaps motivated by his own arrogance that he is the only person with the capability of ensuring stability in Cambodia. 

In recent years, Hun Sen has spoken about retirement, claiming at various points he wants another five or 10 or even 20 years in office. At one point last year, he said he wants to retire to become a lawyer for the poor – a breathtaking comment given his government’s brutal assault on the rule of law. 

But he has also cast doubt on the competency of anyone who might succeed him. This may be him believing his own propaganda. 

For decades, the ruling CPP has unsubtly told the Cambodian people that if the party was to ever fall from power the country would quickly descend back into the anarchy of the 1970s.

Buddhist monks clash with riot police during a protest in Phnom Penh on December 17, 2007. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

Violence and chaos

As Hun Sen’s personal dominance in the party rose during the 2000s, as other grandees fell away and he amassed greater power for himself, the narrative has increasingly come to represent the claim that without Hun Sen then both the CPP and Cambodian society would descend into chaos. 

It is revealing of the way Cambodia’s political elite regard ordinary people: a Hobbesian image of Cambodians as inherently violent and chaotic, with order and peace only held together by the Leviathan that is the CPP. 

It is also contingent with the party’s messaging that without Hun Sen there is no future for Cambodia: l’etat, c’est moi becomes the inverse: sans moi, il n’y a pas d’etat.

As a result, the dynastic cult of the Hun family embellishes this fait accompli, that Cambodia would only be in safe hands with one of Hun Sen’s progeny, that his accomplishments will live on through his familial successor.

Yet it also works against it: If Hun Sen is such an exceptional leader and, despite decades of peace, Cambodian society inherently is never far from chaos, as party propaganda states, then any leader who inherits Hun Sen’s political throne can never compare. And, naturally, the political edifice that Hun Sen created cannot be as successfully managed by anyone else.

But for all the myths that go into Hun Sen’s rule, and however much he believes his own propaganda or not, the reality is that his power is built on far more prosaic foundations: repression, bureaucratic corruption and steady economic growth. 

Moreover, these are weak foundations. At the 2013 general election, the now-banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) won only four percentage points less than the CPP in the popular vote, and that was despite alleged ballot irregularities.

Cambodian Armed Forces deputy commander-in-chief Lt Gen Hun Manet salutes as he listens to the national anthem at the National Olympic Stadium in Phnom Penh on June 18, 2020. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

‘Hun Senism without Hun Sen’

Four years later, the CNRP overturned the ruling party’s monopoly in commune positions at another closely-fought election. That was enough of a concern for Hun Sen, who four months later had the opposition party forcibly dissolved on the spurious accusation it was plotting a US-backed coup. 

Without a challenger, the CPP went on to win all 125 seats at the 2018 general election, turning Cambodia into a de-facto one-party state. But if the CNRP hadn’t been banned it could have won that ballot.  

For all the sense of permanence and destiny wrapped up in the Hun cult, Hun Sen’s survival in power in recent years has depended on the same political scheming and duplicity that helped him first take power in 1985.  

One purpose of the Hun cult is to create the sense that at some point in the future there could be “Hun Senism without Hun Sen,” that one of his sons could simply succeed him and continue his legacy, wrapped up in dynastic niceties.

But, as Hun Sen most likely knows, the cult is an artifice and his authority depends not on founding myths and appeals to a 14th-century legend, but on temporal bread-and-butter issues: citizens who stay in line can expect a slightly better standard of living each year and those who oppose the system are brutally treated.  

Hun Manet, if he ever does succeed his father as prime minister, will inherit his father’s cult but not his father’s political instincts, honed through Cambodia’s dark ages of genocide and war.