Hun Sen’s reign was never supposed to last this long. The Vietnamese Communists who in 1979 installed him, then a tongue-tied mid-20s ex–Khmer Rouge commander, as their puppet foreign minister certainly did not expect this. Neither did the international community.
Sen has defied all expectations, emerging from the Mekong River–hugging lowlands of Kampong Cham to rule Cambodia as prime minister, first in the Vietnamese-controlled People’s Republic of Kampuchea, then under the United Nations’s democracy-focused eye, later as the country’s co-premier, then again on his own, and now still solo, but increasingly under China’s influence. Throughout these near-tectonic shifts, one thing — Sen’s self-interest — has remained constant.
January 14, 2020, will mark 35 years since he came to power. But Sen, who’s only 67, has no apparent intention of stepping down, although he seems to be priming his son Hun Manet for succession. Meanwhile, his autocratic crackdowns have intensified, and the Cambodian condition remains dire: Corruption is endemic, and some 80 percent of Cambodians survive on subsistence farming. The kleptocrat may now wear Cambodian rather than French colonial colors, but for the country’s rural majority life is distressingly similar to its previous analogues.