In 1985, 33-year-old Hun Sen became the youngest prime minister in the world. Nearly thirty years later, Prime Minister Sen is now Southeast Asia’s longest serving non-royal leader. His grip on power, however, is trembling. A dubious General Election in 2013, a brutally enforced crackdown on protests fueled by opposition parties, and an ensuing ban on public assembly in Phnom Penh are all telltale signs of a leader whose interests no longer serve the people. Now, more than ever, the prime minister’s legitimacy and authority are being rendered a farce.
For the leader who is often overshadowed by the clout Thailand and Vietnam, it was not always this way.
A village boy who moved to the capital alone at the tender age of twelve to pursue an education, his story embodies the very dream of upward mobility that his governance now denies to the next generation of Cambodians. He was enlisted into Khmer Rouge in his youth, fighting on the Vietnamese border in a region of Cambodia then known as Democratic Kampuchea. As the atrocities of the regime escalated, Hun Sen and many of his peers defected to Vietnam. In 1978, Vietnam launched an offensive on Pol Pot’s forces, pushing Khmer Rouge into Cambodia’s northwest, where they continued to fight, but eventually became a dormant and powerless force. In lieu of Pol Pot’s rule, Vietnam backed an installation of the new People’s Republic of Kampuchea/State of Cambodia. Hun Sen assumed the role of prime minister.
In the 1980’s, a fearless Hun Sen survived three assassination attempts by the Chinese and western-backed insurgencies that were willing to set aside ideological differences to defeat a Cambodia supported by the Vietnamese. At the same time, human rights violations were mounting up against him. In 1993, after the influential marks of Khmer Rouge had faded, Hun Sen lost UN-monitored elections. Still, Sen maintained control of the military and vital organs of the government, which proved to be enough influence to negotiate his way back into power. Four years later, he violently overthrew his superior, Prince Ranariddh, and reclaimed control of the nation.
Hun Sen’s ascendancy into power once more marked the beginning of a more ruthless, unforgiving rule. He kept a good public image, putting the last of Pol Pot’s henchmen to trial, but reigned unlawfully behind closed doors. Sam Rainsy, the face of the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), for example, was forced into exile with unjust cause.
Hun Sen’s abuse of power, however, is finally coming to pass. The mark of the New Year reinvigorated protests against his regime. The CNRP claim to have been wronged in the General Election of 2013. They argue that 1.2 to 1.3 million Cambodians were unable to vote, inadequate identification policies allowed migrants to unlawfully vote, and the ink used allowed officials to change votes after they were cast. Earlier this month, a protest over the rights of garment workers (who belong to Cambodia’s key export industry) ended in the death of five and an arrest of 21 others, who have been denied bail. Professor Emeritus at the University of New South Wales Carl Thayer remarked, “Cambodia is now at a tipping point”. (http://www.cnn.com/2014/01/10/world/asia/cambodia-protests-analysis/)
Prime Minister Sen can brutalize his people and pilfer any semblance of free speech from his people, but his atrocities will not be forgotten. He is quickly forgetting that he maintained power by assuring Cambodians peace when they most needed it.
Instead Hun Sen is focusing on growing Cambodia’s power in Southeast Asia – a region with nations that far outweigh the political, economic, and military might of Cambodia.
For support, he has enlisted an enemy of decades gone by. Many academics claim that more than 5,000 Chinese worked as technicians and advisors to Pol Pot and his Standing Committee, yet, it is the Chinese that now line Hun Sen’s pockets and bolster his push for regional power.
In 2010, Beijing donated 250 vehicles to the Cambodian army; in 2013, Cambodia accepted $195 million in loans from the Chinese to buy 12 Zhi-9 military helicopters. As chair of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2012, Cambodia only allowed bilateral negotiations between ASEAN members and China on the issue of disputed islands, effectively forcing a stalemate.
Denying ASEAN nations a resolution on China’s growing aggression within the First and Second Island Chain has made an important ally out of Cambodia, but an even greater agitator for the rest of the region. Push back internationally will not match the violence and passion as protests on domestic fronts, but reactionary measures from nations like Thailand and Vietnam may take a powerful toll economically on Hun Sen’s Cambodia.
Blatant disregard for free speech, civil rights, and free and fair elections may be offset by general peace in the nation, but additional aggression by neighboring states will put these vital assets at an imminent and permanent risk. Hun Sen’s hold on rule is certainly weakening, but the future of the nation still rests in his hands. If he pushes these limits both domestically and abroad, his walls may come crashing back down. History has shown us once where authoritarianism stands in Cambodia and may once more if Hun Sen treats pushes for more unwarranted power regionally, compromises elections, and quells protests domestically.