PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — In a fiery speech more than three years ago Prime
Minister Hun Sen claimed credit for ridding his country of the Khmer Rouge, suggesting only he had the balls to take on Pol Pot’s murderous communists in the 1970s. “If Hun Sen was not willing to enter the tiger’s den, how would we have caught the tigers?” he famously asked.
But he left out of that narrative the fact he himself was a Khmer Rouge before he switched sides, fled to Vietnam, joined the Hanoi-backed rebel army and returned to Cambodia to help topple his former comrades in 1977, two years after the Vietnam War ended in defeat for the United States.
Hun Sen may regard himself as savior of the nation, but to most, including many of his own people, he’s a brutal, uncompromising leader who for almost 40 years has used killings, torture, repression, graft and other unsavory means to seize, consolidate and maintain power.
“Over more than three decades, hundreds of opposition figures, journalists, trade union leaders, and others have been killed in politically motivated attacks,” Human Rights Watch declared in a recent report.
The wily premier outmaneuvered and outlasted a series of opponents, many of whom made the mistake of dismissing him as “a peasant.” He even survived the machinations of the late King Norodom Sihanouk, a shrewd political chameleon who once sneered at him as a “one-eyed lackey of the Vietnamese.” And Hun Sen’s long drive for total control reached its apogee Sunday, when he won the nation’s carefully controlled election. His Cambodia People’s Party claimed victory with 80 percent of the vote, shrugging off protests from critics who said the election was a sham given that Hun Sen had made the Supreme Court dissolve the main opposition group, the Cambodia National Rescue Party.
"There are basically no checks or balances to the CPP's power now with Hun Sen having cleared the decks of both serious political opposition as well as a critical, independent press," says Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of HRW. “Cambodia is entering a new paradigm of controlling, dictatorial rule.”
Sunday's results extend Hun Sen’s 33-year reign by five more years. It realizes the ambitions of the 65-year-old premier, who has declared that he intends to rule until he’s 74 and who, says Virak Ou, director of the Future Forum think tank, apparently believes he's the reincarnation of a Khmer god-king.
“The CPP controls every facet of the country, and the rule of law does not apply,” says Michael G. Karnavas, a lawyer who has argued cases before the International Criminal Court at The Hague. “If it did, they would have to apply it to everyone. Then they couldn’t be doing what they’re doing.”
When Hun Sen joined the Khmer Rouge in the early 1970s it was struggling to overthrow the harsh Khmer Republic regime led by Lon Nol, which it did in 1975. The new government, headed by Pol Pot, proved far bloodier than Lon Nol’s. The Khmer Rouge set about fashioning a communist “utopia,” forcibly relocating vast numbers of people from cities to work on communal farms and to be “re-educated.”
The Khmer Rouge executed intellectuals, professional people, the so-called intelligentsia, Buddhist monks, and virtually anyone it believed had links to the Lon Nol government. Some 2 million Cambodians were slaughtered, including children, some of whom were simply bashed against trees. The country is dotted with sites — dubbed “killing fields” — where people were executed. One such place, Choeung Ek, about 10 miles south of the capital, has mass graves, skulls, photos of tortured prisoners and collections of bone — grim, and still moving, evidence of the genocide.
It remains unclear why Hun Sen defected to Vietnam in 1977, although Pol Pot launched purges of the Khmer Rouge that year. No one seems to know if Hun Sen was a target. He had achieved the rank of battalion commander, but fled across the border with his cadres. Hanoi invaded Cambodia in late 1978, motivated by a desire to have a sympathetic government in Phnom Penh as it faced off against both the United States and China, according to scholar Bernd Schaefer. Hun Sen returned with the Vietnamese and became deputy prime minister in the new government — the first step in his personal conquest of Cambodia.
Hun Sen served as co-prime minister with Sihanouk’s son, Norodom Ranariddh, between 1993 and 1997, but soon elbowed aside the prince. He’s been sole premier ever since, systematically expanding his control — and his fortune.
The United States and United Nations have condemned Hun Sen’s violence against his own people and his crackdown on dissent: He has shut down the Cambodia Daily, claiming the English-language newspaper owed more than $4 million in taxes; allegedly coerced the sale of the Phnom Penh Post to a Malaysian ally; forced Radio Free Asia and the National Democratic Institute to close their Phnom Penh operations; shuttered some 30 radio stations and almost 20 websites.
Washington has reduced assistance in some aid programs and blocked visas for some government officials. In June the U.S. blacklisted the head of the prime minister's protection detail, forcing some companies to freeze his assets.
Prior to the latest outrages, Hun Sen for years sought to at least mollify international critics. But that was when he depended on Western aid and wanted to avoid economic sanctions. These days, he has a potent ally with deep pockets and indifference to human rights niceties — China.
The Chinese now have such a large economic footprint in Cambodia that they've made the country a virtual dependency. In 2017 China invested $1.644 billion officially, according to the Nikkei Asian Review, with construction contracts estimated at $17.54 billion by year's end. The Chinese are said to own up to 20 percent of entire provinces, including most of the coastal property around Sihanoukville, the main port.
New Chinese-funded buildings and construction projects choke Phnom Penh, and once sleepy Sihanoukville is being transformed into what some call "a second Macau" — a gambling haven that boasts anywhere from 40 to 80 casinos, depending on who you ask.
In return for this largesse, Hun Sen backs Beijing politically, siding with the Chinese in forums such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and in disputes like ownership of the South China Sea.
"The Chinese are giving money and they want something; that's normal," government spokesman Siphan Phay conceded to the Review.
Hun Sen, his family, his generals and others in the ruling apparatus are said to be profiting handsomely from China's deep pockets. The former Communist cadre owns a number of palatial residences, including a sprawling, heavily guarded mansion near Independence Monument. Critics say he and his family have amassed hundreds of millions of dollars. Two years ago, the Global Witness NGO estimated the family's wealth at $500 million to $1 billion, attributing it to cronyism and corruption.
The Chinese connection has worsened the country's centuries-long patronage system, says Karnavas. "A lot of resources are going to the Chinese," he tells The Daily Beast. "There's a lot of resentment among Cambodians who see a lot of their property and their jobs going to Chinese."
The widening chasm between the rich and the ordinary folks angers many Cambodians, who see expensive exotic cars speeding along the riverside and Rolls-Royces, Porsches, Range Rovers, BMWs and other luxury vehicles packing showrooms along Manivong Boulevard.
Chanvin, 30, and his wife recently had their first child. He earns $120 per month working in food and beverage and $80 more in his second job washing dishes.
"I never had a thought of going to university; there's no chance because I don't have money," he tells The Daily Beast. "With all the investment, the rich are still rich and the poor are still poor. It's not fair, you know?"
With Hun Sen’s latest win, critics say, he will continue to help his heirs profit from big corporate deals in the present — and agitate to bequeath them the real family business — Cambodia itself.
"It appears there's a family autocracy underway," one Western official tells the Daily Beast.
In the family autocracy, the next in line likely is Hun Manet, now deputy commander-in-chief of the armed forces and head of the Cambodian Defense Department's counterterrorism unit. Should he stumble, there's Member of Parliament Hun Many, and a third son, Hun Manith, a brigadier-general in the army. There's also Hun Mana, a daughter who runs a large media company.
Young non-relatives might foil the dynastic plans, however. Those who may figure in the succession, says Virak, include Interior Minister Sar Kheng; Aun Pornmoniroth, the finance minister; Environment Minister Say Samal and Sun Chanthol, the transport minister.
For Hun Sen, who will be 66 next month, such matters can be kicked down the road. By his own reckoning, the former Khmer Rouge commander still has at least eight years to rule.