Monday, July 21, 2008
PHNOM PENH — Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen lost an eye as a Khmer Rouge guerrilla in the 1970s,
but later abandoned the movement in his own ruthless drive to secure power and undercut all his rivals.
The 55-year-old premier has vowed to remain Cambodia’s head of state until he is 90, and has been on top so long that many fear the country will collapse if he is suddenly removed.
Voters appear unlikely to end Hun Sen’s 23-year rule when they go to the polls on July 27, with his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) expected to romp to victory.
His confidence is so complete that he has taken the unusual tactic of not campaigning for his re-election.
“I will not participate during the campaign. I don’t want to face confrontation because during that time of year many people will criticize the CPP,” he said.
And yet Hun Sen’s presence is felt everywhere.
Outside of campaign season, Hun Sen appears in public almost every day. He is flown throughout the countryside in his helicopter to give televised speeches at the openings of pagodas, schools and bridges.
The message: Hun Sen brought you this.
“If I vote for a new political party, there might be chaos,” said Say Phumivaun, a 19-year-old student from western Battambang province, voicing a familiar sentiment.
To rural villagers, Hun Sen is also the Cambodian everyman. His sharp, populist wit and humble upbringing making him one of their own.
He often veers from prepared remarks — launching into coarsely-worded rants against phantom coups, arrogant foreigners or international demands for reform.
Born the third of six children to peasant farmers in central Cambodia, Hun Sen moved to the capital Phnom Penh at age 12, where he was so poor he was forced to live in a Buddhist pagoda while attending school.
When Cambodia fell into civil war in 1970, he became a foot soldier for what later emerged as the Khmer Rouge — the genocidal regime behind Cambodia’s killing fields.
Hun Sen claims he opposed the Khmer Rouge as early as 1975. But he remained with the movement, losing an eye in the fighting and rising to the rank of deputy regional commander.
He married field nurse Bun Rany in a mass ceremony in 1976, but fled a year later to Vietnam as the regime that killed up to two million people was consumed by its own paranoia, purging thousands.
Hun Sen returned in 1978 with other Cambodian defectors and Vietnamese troops who pushed the Khmer Rouge into the country’s far northwest, where fighting lasted for another two decades.
He quickly rose to the top of the Hanoi-installed government of the 1980s, becoming the world’s youngest prime minister in 1985.
As his country emerged from conflict, he abandoned the communist dogma of his Vietnamese patrons, embracing the free market and seeking out alliances with more powerful nations.
Today, the strongman has maneuvered his country from civil war into a position of growing regional influence and an avid partner with China and the United States.
Garment exports and tourism have brought double-digit economic growth, but Cambodia remains one of the world’s poorest countries.
His administration is mired in corruption and Hun Sen is frequently the target of criticism that he tramples basic rights to keep his grip on power.
In 1993, he manhandled victory away from the country’s royalists following Cambodia’s first elections, backed by the United Nations.
He secured a power-sharing deal with the royalists, but ultimately ousted them in a bloody 1997 coup.
Hundreds of people were killed in the run-up to elections the following year. Protests against Hun Sen’s victory were put down violently.
The last national election in 2003 was far less violent, but plunged the kingdom into a year of political stalemate as parties wrangled over forming a coalition.
This year’s campaign is much calmer than the past, possibly because Hun Sen no longer faces any major rivals.