One reason why Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has survived in politics for nearly four decades is that he doesn’t see any threat as too small. A wayward social media post from a random activist must not go unpunished, pour encourager les autres. But he’s no tin-pot dictator who exists through aggression alone. There is something of the sacral to Hun Sen’s rule, something that harks back to centuries past. His is an iron will to rule but with punishment and forgiveness in equal cruelty.
He’s the father who you never know is going to beat you or ruffle your hair. Like a god-king of past centuries, you’re instructed to fear and love him in equal measure – or, perhaps more accurately, you’re instructed to love him because he hasn’t beaten you as much as he could have. When the father doesn’t give you stripes from a belt, even when he can, you’re compelled to bow down and praise his mercifulness, his benevolence. At that moment, you’re taught to adore your tormentor.
Take the recent case of Yim Sonorn. On March 22, the former opposition activist, along with another activist Hun Kosal, was remanded in custody by a Phnom Penh Municipal Court on charges of insulting King Norodom Sihamoni and “inciting serious social unrest.” They had posted a few innocuous comments on Facebook insinuating that Hun Sen, now in power for 38 years, has more authority than the monarch, hardly a rarified observation. And a leader who is planning his own dynastic succession, who has funded films and monuments to Cambodia’s historic “peasant king” Sdech Kan, and regularly speaks of himself as the “father” of the Cambodian people, it’s rather pitiful of Hun Sen to pretend he doesn’t see himself in a monarchical light.