How Far Will This Strongman Go to Keep Power?
By Daniel Malloy
As the results trickled in, Hun Sen did not like what he could see with his one good eye. It was 1993, Cambodia was staging its first free election in decades under direction of the United Nations, and the prime minister had entered the vote confident that his leadership — not to mention an intimidation campaign against his foes — would deliver victory.
But his Cambodian People’s Party narrowly lost to the royalists, and Hun Sen destroyed the television, a CNN article related. He then set about playing at blindness, as though he’d never seen any of the broadcast at all. Hun Sen engineered a “secession” of part of the country, garnering himself leverage for a power-sharing deal that put him on equal footing with the victors, whom he proceeded to shove aside in a 1997 coup. Since then, he has continued to fend off challenges — and though an election looms in 2018, Hun Sen, whose party did not reply to multiple requests for comment, has no intention of losing again. He is combining an increasingly broad crackdown against his opposition with a makeover as a man of the people, honed through — what else? — Facebook.
Authoritarians hold sway across Southeast Asia: Vietnam and Laos are one-party Communist states, Thailand is run by a military junta that’s delaying scheduled elections, and the Philippines just elected a Trump-like figure who’s talked of killing criminals himself. Cambodia seems freer — but in recent months, the country of some 15 million has witnessed crackdowns against the opposition party, suggesting the wind might be blowing in the direction of the rest of the region. A lawmaker was jailed over Facebook posts. A U.N. official and others close with opposition leaders were arrested on charges of bribing a woman to not admit being the mistress of a prominent opposition minister. That leader, Kem Sokha, is in hiding; an arrest warrant awaits him. The election here, still two years away, is being discussed as a litmus test for whether a semblance of representative government could survive.
It doesn’t look good: Hun Sen has defied European Union warnings against his tactics and declared outfit coordination a crime in response to a group of black-clad protesters. “The scope and breadth is unprecedented,” says Sophal Ear, a professor at Occidental College in California and author of Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy, Ear compares Sen’s measures to a soap opera. Indeed, it seemed like a half-baked operatic script, perhaps one inspired by Kim Jong Il, when the government demanded the media use “Lord Prime Minister and Supreme Military Commander Hun Sen” on first reference, or risk legal repercussions. The request was laughed off by an international press with a robust presence in Cambodia, but Khmer-language media are likely to fall in line.
And why? Sebastian Strangio, a Phnom Penh–based journalist and author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia, says the man “knows his country well. He’s able to understand the wants and desires of rural people. He is [one] himself.” Born in 1952 to rice and tobacco farmers, Hun Sen spent his childhood as an errand boy for monks, being educated in a Buddhist pagoda. He joined the Communist rebellion against the American-backed government — losing his left eye in one battle, and gaining quite a story — eventually becoming a commander in the Khmer Rouge.
He escaped to Vietnam, avoiding the genocide, and returned when the Vietnamese invaded to toss out Pol Pot. Hun Sen became the effective leader of the country in 1985 and has barely twitched since. He never had much of an ideology, ditching Communism when convenient and adopting the jargon of international development, even as he used force to cling to power. Mocking the West’s notions of how to run his country, a favorite phrase became: “International standards exist only in sports.”
As the nation’s quality of life has risen — the country’s growth rate of around 7 percent a year since 2011 is one of the best and most consistent in the world — so have expectations. The youth movement is focused on inequality, and is less appreciative of the unprecedented stability of the era. “They’re victims of their own success in a way,” Strangio said, adding that the leader’s politics have “fallen out of sync with the needs and desires of the younger generation.” The ruling party nearly lost the 2013 elections, and the leader responded with a charm offensive, posting Facebook videos of himself mingling with foreign leaders such as Vladimir Putin, dancing with his wife and distributing water in drought-stricken areas. He now has 4 million likes on his Facebook page, though the Phnom Penh Post reported that most of them are from overseas, forcing Hun Sen to deny charges that he’s paid for fake followers.
As the crackdown continues, watch for the 2017 World Economic Forum on ASEAN. WEF head Klaus Schwab, Ear pointed out, fancies himself a peacemaker and once helped broker a rapprochement between Nelson Mandela and South African leaders. (WEF spokesman Georg Schmitt declined to comment on Cambodia but said the group closely monitors political situations in host countries.)
In the meantime, the Facebook Live–loving strongman is happy to be gazed upon — on his terms. In June, he got on a motorbike belonging to an apparently unsuspecting member of the public, then gave the man a short ride. He streamed the whole thing. Viewers noted the prime minister was not wearing a helmet, and Hun Sen apologized, accepting his $3.75 fine, in a wink to critics who’d say he fancies himself above the law.
This story has been updated: An earlier version misstated Sophal Ear’s employer. It is Occidental College, not Occidental University. Additionally, an earlier version misstated the name of the forum Cambodia is scheduled to host next year. It is the World Economic Forum on ASEAN, not the World Economic Forum on East Asia.