Thirty years ago today, Hun Sen, then 33, was appointed prime minister by the National Assembly of the socialist People’s Republic of Kampuchea, becoming the world’s youngest head of government.
For the former Khmer Rouge regiment commander, who had fled to Vietnam in June 1977 amid a wave of purges by Pol Pot, it was the start of a reign in which he would traverse almost constant upheaval to impose himself as the unrivaled ruler of Cambodia.
Now the world’s sixth-longest serving leader, slightly behind Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, Mr. Hun Sen has co-opted or crushed every major challenge to his leadership over the past 30 years.
The rise of the U.S.- and China-backed resistance in the 1980s, the U.N.-administered transition to democracy in the early 1990s, and the return of popular rivals such as King Norodom Sihanouk have each become mere blips punctuating Mr. Hun Sen’s rise.
A Young Communist
Born in Kompong Cham province’s Stung Trang district in August 1952, Mr. Hun Sen says he joined the Khmer Rouge maquis in 1970 upon the appeal of then-Prince Sihanouk, whom the National Assembly ousted as chief of state that year and replaced with Lon Nol.
Losing his left eye during the April 1975 battle for Phnom Penh that led to Khmer Rouge victory, Mr. Hun Sen rose through the ranks of the Eastern Zone before fleeing the purges of zone cadre that coincided with mounting Khmer Rouge raids across the border into Vietnam.
When Vietnam launched an invasion of Cambodia and overthrew Pol Pot in January 1979, Mr. Hun Sen, then 29, was named foreign affairs minister in the Vietnam-installed regime led by Heng Samrin, which justified its rule in its defeat of Pol Pot’s “genocide.”
“We will probably never know how much ‘the savage genocidal orders aimed at the Cambodian people’ displeased Hun Sen,” wrote The Bangkok Post’s Cambodia correspondent, Jacques Bekaert, four days after Mr. Hun Sen was named prime minister on January 14, 1985.
“But there is little doubt that indeed Hun Sen felt very uncomfortable indeed with the strongly anti-Vietnamese attitude of some of the most prominent members of Democratic Kampuchea,” he wrote.
“Hun Sen is still young, already brilliant, learning fast and traveling a lot. Some sources claim he is trusted by Vietnam more than Heng Samrin who, says one source, is not even any longer allowed to meet foreigners alone,” Mr. Bekaert concluded in the piece.
Mr. Hun Sen’s close association with Vietnam—he fast became a fluent speaker of Vietnamese, and to this day strongly defends the decade-long occupation of Cambodia by Vietnam—would become a major line dividing his supporters and enemies.
“Hun Sen rose to power during the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia, but I think it’s very unjust—and insulting—to call Hun Sen a ‘Vietnamese puppet,’” said Chhang Song, an information minister for Lon Nol who fled to the U.S. upon the 1975 Khmer Rouge victory.
Mr. Song in the 1980s became one of the very few former Lon Nol officials to support Mr. Hun Sen, seeing him as a bulwark against the return of Pol Pot despite the regime’s adherence to communism.
“During the Vietnamese occupation, [Mr. Hun Sen] had to also compete with other Cambodians in the field to reach that power,” said Mr. Song, who in the 1990s would serve as a senator for Mr. Hun Sen’s CPP.
“Besides, I don’t remember any other Cambodian leader who was not a ‘puppet’ of a certain foreign power, if one liked so much to use the term,” he said.
“Cambodians must realize that a certain permanent solution must be found between the Cambodians and Vietnamese,” Mr. Song said. “At the end, they must co-exist peacefully.”
Inside the communist party—and against a faction perceived to be led by Mr. Samrin and Chea Sim, the interior minister who controlled police—Mr. Hun Sen began to make a name as a relatively pragmatic reformist.
A few months after Mr. Hun Sen’s regime renounced communism in April 1989 and renamed itself the State of Cambodia—apparently against the protests of Mr. Sim—The New York Times published a report titled “In Phnom Penh, Vietnam’s ‘Puppet’ Is Finding His Voice.”
“To young people in Cambodia, who have no memory of Prince Sihanouk, Mr. Hun Sen represents modernity,” the New York Times noted. “Returning from Paris this month, he stepped off his airplane in a French double-breasted suit. He favors imported cigarettes and wears metal-frame glasses that help mask the scar from the shrapnel that took his left eye in 1975.
“Mr. Hun Sen takes advantage of his differences with the Prince while publicly urging him to come home. Meanwhile, he cleverly explains the Prince’s failure to do so by saying that the Prince remains allied to the Khmer Rouge, a relationship most Cambodians find disturbing.”
By the late 1980s, the prime minister was deftly convincing his communist comrades to embrace the free market, according to Evan Gottesman’s book “Cambodia: After the Khmer Rouge,” which is based on the minutes of Council of Ministers meetings in the 1980s.
“No one is anyone’s socialist teacher, because [Cambodian socialists] have practiced socialism for twenty years already, and they are starting to discard and dismantle it and are starting anew,” Mr. Hun Sen is quoted as saying in a June 1988 meeting. “They are agreeing they are completely wrong.”
Yet behind a veneer of reformism, Mr. Hun Sen, who was negotiating the return of plural democracy to Cambodia with Prince Sihanouk, remained a creature of the communist party through which he had risen—dedicated to it as the vessel for exercising his power.
Speaking at the Council of Ministers in June 1989, according to Mr. Gottesman, Mr. Hun Sen raised a pragmatic reason to move to privatize (to trusted allies) the industries that his government had worked so hard to build after the fall of the Khmer Rouge.
“If there is a political solution, we want all state factories to become private factories,” Mr. Hun Sen said. “If we leave them with the state, we will face problems when the three parties [in Prince Sihanouk’s resistance] come and spend money that belongs to our factories, which we have operated for 10 years.”
Restoration of Democracy
Mr. Hun Sen and Prince Sihanouk signed the Paris Peace Agreements on October 23, 1991, and plural democracy returned to Cambodia, with the prince’s erstwhile resistance group returning to Phnom Penh to participate in a U.N.-run national election.
When the results of the poll were released in June 1993, Mr. Hun Sen’s CPP had won 51 seats to the 58 won by the Funcinpec party, led by Prince Sihanouk’s son, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, whose campaign relied heavily upon his father’s enduring popularity.
With two-thirds of the 120 National Assembly seats required to form a government, Mr. Hun Sen elbowed his way into the position of “second prime minister,” with Prince Ranariddh as “first prime minister.”
Mr. Hun Sen’s continued stake in power, underpinned by the old regime’s dominance of the state apparatus and the money pouring back into Cambodia, put him a stronger position than before yielding control of the state.
“As a survivor, he’s adaptable. He’s not doctrinaire,” said Sophal Ear, author of “Aid Dependence in Cambodia,” adding that the thread tying together Mr. Hun Sen’s 30 years in power has been a fidelity to his own interests.
“He embraced capitalism with open arms and followed [Chinese communist reformer] Deng Xiaoping’s dictum: To get rich is glorious. His style of leadership has been populist with language the masses could embrace, but he’s also had an iron fist just in case,” he said.
Indeed, Mr. Hun Sen’s three decades as prime minister have been marked by a willingness to patiently observe opposition to him develop, before suddenly bringing down that fist.
Perhaps the foremost example of this pattern was the July 1997 factional fighting in Phnom Penh between armed forces loyal to Mr. Hun Sen and those loyal to Prince Ranariddh, which led to the prince’s removal about a year after the pair began fighting over their power-sharing deal.
With the prince exiled in France, Cambodian-Australian Funcinpec lawmaker Ung Huot replaced him as first prime minister. Mr. Hun Sen said the prince’s removal was thus not a coup, and blamed Ranariddh himself for inviting Khmer Rouge remnants into Phnom Penh.
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.
“His legacy is nothing, except for dictatorship. His rule is to threaten, to rob and kill others to smooth the way for him to stay in power,” said Pen Sovann, who was briefly the first prime minister of the regime that replaced the Khmer Rouge, before being purged and imprisoned in Vietnam for a decade.
“From year to year, even after 1997 and in the 2000s, I have never seen any improvements in his leadership, except for the tears shed by poor people who have lost their land and property,” said Mr. Sovann, who is now an opposition lawmaker.
Restoration of Dominance
Asked in 1998 what the U.N. had given Cambodia five years before, Mr. Hun Sen said “AIDS.”
With the election past, the prime minister found himself in a position of dominance, with opposition to his former communist party as divided as ever.
Former Finance Minister Sam Rainsy’s new eponymous party and Prince Ranariddh’s Funcinpec polled a combined 2.25 million votes to the CPP’s 2.03 million in 1998, but split the vote.
“Hun Sen did not have to adopt ‘divide and rule’ tactics; the opposition did that itself,” noted David Roberts in his 2001 book “Political Transition in Cambodia.”
“Going by election results, had Rainsy and Ranariddh united, they would have achieved a majority of votes and the outcome would have been quite different.”
It was a boon to Mr. Hun Sen’s grip on power that cemented his rule for the next 15 years, with opponents to his rule standing little chance of victory.
“The problem with the democratic opposition is that, until recently, we were weak and divided,” Mr. Rainsy said in an interview this week. “It was not because Hun Sen was strong, but because his challengers were weak.”
“The key point is that there were too many parties running as political parties,” said Nhiek Bun Chhay, a former military general who led Prince Ranariddh’s Funcinpec forces in the July 1997 factional fighting.
“Those democratic parties did not unite together, resulting in their number of votes declining and being split,” said Mr. Bun Chhay, who is today a high-ranking adviser to Mr. Hun Sen’s CPP government.
“Meanwhile, the CPP had a strong foundation and never split, and that is why Prime Minister Hun Sen…won a majority of seats at almost every election.”
Indeed, with Funcinpec crumbling due to its continuing coalition partnership with the CPP, and fighting between Mr. Rainsy’s party and other opposition parties crippling their campaigns, Mr. Hun Sen won 90 of the 123 seats in parliament in the July 2008 election.
With almost no serious challenge to his power, and Prince Ranariddh and Mr. Rainsy being scared into exile in France for extended periods during the 2000s, Mr. Hun Sen took on a new aura of unassailability.
Often resorting to absurd promises, Mr. Hun Sen again began painting himself as a reformer, once pledging to rid Cambodia of deforestation by ending illegal logging on state granted land concessions.
“If you dare to [disobey the order] and if I do not then remove your forest concession and close your factory,” Mr. Hun Sen warned land concession holders in December 2001, “I will cut my own head off.”
For those in Mr. Hun Sen’s CPP, like National Assembly member Sik Bunhok, the prime minister’s ability to maintain power comes down to his plain-speaking style and the economic development he has overseen.
“He has been prime minister for so many years because he has the strong support of the public, since he was born to a poor farming family,” Mr. Bunhok said. “That’s why he understands about the life of the poor, and the suffering and happiness of villagers.”
“He is a unique leader in terms of his wisdom and smart leadership. He collects scholars and smart people to work with him,” Mr. Bunhok said.
“He built [Cambodia] from scratch and restored people’s living standards, and provided them with both spirit and material like today’s development.”
“Frankly speaking, he’s not just a fast learner, but his memory is very strong. Maybe because he lost one eye for the sake of the country, he’s gained some other strength others don’t have,” Mr. Bunhok said.
In the first serious challenge to Mr. Hun Sen’s power since the 1990s, the CNRP, which was formed in a merger of two opposition parties a year before the 2013 ballot, came seven seats short of winning the national election.
The subsequent street demonstrations calling for Mr. Hun Sen’s resignation, which were violently repressed, and the unprecedented electoral reforms conceded by the prime minister in the aftermath of the protests, demonstrated the threat that the CNRP presents.
“I don’t think at this time Hun Sen maintains popular support,” Mr. Rainsy said this week, adding that he believes Mr. Hun Sen has shown that he is aware of his current vulnerability.
“There is now a will from both sides to talk, to find resolutions to problems. One resolution is reforms, starting with the election reforms we have achieved. Now, the country is moving in the right direction.”
Yet it is not the first time in his three decades that the prime minister has appeared to step away from his authoritarian style in the face of strong opposition that he later crushes at a time of its weakness.
Carl Thayer, a Southeast Asia expert at the Australian Defense Force Academy in Canberra, said that Mr. Hun Sen’s soft approach to Mr. Rainsy since the new “culture of dialogue” was announced last year is yet another example of Mr. Hun Sen’s usual methods.
“Although the final chapter in his long career has yet to be written, Hun Sen still exhibits the political tactician’s skills to placate the opposition,” Mr. Thayer said, adding that Mr. Hun Sen nevertheless stands vulnerable.
“Years of relative political stability, economic growth and the emergence of a technology-savvy younger generation are undermining the basis of Hun Sen’s nepotistic patronage network,” he said.
“The time is now ripe for Hun Sen, who is by all accounts a very intelligent man, to consider how to manage his transition from power with dignity.”
Yet David Chandler, a prominent historian of Cambodia, said that he did not believe the prime minister was ready to bow down to the CNRP threat.
“I think he feels sure he can negotiate it. It’s clearly an enormous challenge, but he has enormous power (and financing, and foreign support) that the opposition lacks,” Mr. Chandler said in an email, adding that Mr. Hun Sen’s imprint on the country is nevertheless ensured.
“Cambodia, when he retires (I doubt if this will follow an electoral defeat) will to a large extent be a reflection of policies he has invented and followed.”
For the first time in his three decades, Mr. Hun Sen now faces an environment in which he cannot rely simply upon the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, and in which savage political repression may only belie the death throes of a struggling regime.
“The CNRP is a threat for the CPP if the CPP is unable to learn from the 2013 election results,” said Raoul Marc Jennar, a Cambodia historian and political scientist, who said Mr. Hun Sen must again adapt.
“[T]he political terrain is now different. New generations are waiting for changes. People are more concerned by the future than they are by the past. The status quo is not an option,” Mr. Jennar said.
Still, Mr. Ear, the author of “Aid Dependency in Cambodia,” said Mr. Hun Sen’s unique staying power as prime minister could extend to its natural limits.
“I think he understood, even under socialism, that the future would not be socialist,” Mr. Ear said of the prime minister. “Just as is said of nation states, he has ‘no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests.’ For him this means staying on top and valuing loyalty to his interests, but as the Buddha teaches, there are three things no one escapes: disease, old age, and death.”