Is Hun Sen really stepping down?

He has been around for so long that he seems to have been the classic example of the legendary Banyan tree, a politician who was so powerful that no one else would emerge from his shadow. But that image distorts the history of Hun Sen’s rise to power, a necessary background to his announcement that he will resign next month from the prime minister’s job he has held since 1985.

Most particularly, the Banyan image fails to take account of the way in which Hun Sen overcame challenges within his own political grouping, seized the initiative after the 1993 United Nations-sponsored elections, and was ready to resort to naked force in 1997 when he feared that he might face a real threat from Prince Norodom Ranariddh’s royalist party FUNCINPEC. It also gives far too little credit to Hun Sen’s skill in managing relations with both China and Vietnam while domestically overcoming King Norodom Sihanouk’s efforts to offer an alternative focus of power, leading to Sihanouk’s second abdication in 2004.

All of this has to be measured against Hun Sen’s readiness to resort to political and physical intimidation. He has relied on the heavy-handed use of the forces of order and the complaisant cooperation of a corrupt legal system. There is no doubt that Cambodia today has been shaped by his determination that an increasingly authoritarian form of government will prevail over domestic and foreign criticism.

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