[This story was originally published January 14, 2010]
Stung Trang district, Kompong Cham province – Twenty-five years ago today, Hun Sen was appointed by the Cambodian National Assembly to become, at 33, the youngest prime minister in the world.
Mr Hun Sen’s journey from a communist leader to an elected head of government, whose party, the CPP, now has a two-thirds legislative majority in the Assembly, spans a quarter of a century of civil war, domestic and international upheaval and a negotiated peace and democracy through which he and his party have imposed themselves as the country’s deliverers of stability and order.
By retaining the helm in the country’s fractious politics for 25 years, Mr Hun Sen now stands among a unique category of leaders: he ranks as the 11th longest-ruling leader in the world.
In Southeast Asia, only the Sultan of Brunei, now the world’s longest-serving leader since assuming office in 1967, has been in power longer than Mr Hun Sen. Of the other nine longer-serving leaders, five are heads of governments in Africa and four are from the Middle East.
Mr Hun Sen reflected on his long political career and humble beginnings in a speech at the National Institute for Education in Phnom Penh on Tuesday.
“This year is the 31st anniversary of forming the government and it is also the 25th anniversary of my premiership. So I am not an old-timer, but a long time ruler,” Mr Hun Sen said.
“I became [foreign] minister when I was 27 years old, deputy prime minister when I was 29 years old, and prime minister at 33 years old,” he recalled.
He also said he joined the anti-republican maquis, a movement which consisted of several groups including the Khmer Rouge, on April 2, 1970, “based on an appeal from King Sihanouk.”
“Throughout 40 years I have known all kinds of tastes. I knew how my commander commanded the troops and I knew how to make tea for him. I knew how to wash clothes for him,” Mr Hun Sen said in his now trademark plain speaking public address style.
He then went on to talk about his political future, saying he would run in the next election and adding that recent opinion polls by the US-based International Republican Institute showed the CPP was currently more popular than ever.
“The party conference announced my candidacy for the future prime minister and…last week Samdech Chea Sim also reconfirmed my nomination for the premiership,” Mr Hun Sen said, before taking aim at opposition parties. “Please do not try to limit the mandate of premiership. You want the mandate limited because you are worrying you will lose to me,” he said.
On Dec 27, the 25th anniversary of his appointment as acting prime minister in 1984, Mr Hun Sen met with members of his family and contemplated a time when he will no longer rule Cambodia. Should that day come, according to Mr Hun Sen, members of his powerful extended family could find the tables have turned against them if they alienate ordinary Cambodians.
“If Hun Sen loses power, you will become a target for attacks if you do not follow my advice,” he said, advising that they should show charity and concern for the less fortunate.
It was a rare reflection by Mr Hun Sen on the eventual limits of his reign.
Current and former government officials and people who knew Mr Hun Sen in youth or as a budding young communist leader said his rhetorical talents and ability to lead, learn, adapt and survive the changing political and ideological terrain in Cambodia were apparent in his personality from the start.
CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap said that he remembered Mr Hun Sen exhibited leadership qualities and a capacity to learn fast early in his career.
These skills, Mr Yeap said, allowed Mr Hun Sen to gather loyalty from his staff, to impress officials from Vietnam, whose military remained in Cambodia from 1979 to 1989, and to sway members of the Khmer People’s Revolutionary Party–the previous name of the Cambodian People’s Party.
“I met him in 1979 when I was chief of the propaganda department of Prey Veng province. He was deputy prime minister and the youngest foreign minister in the world,” Mr Yeap recounted. “Even though he was five years younger than me, I saw he was hard working. He liked to communicate with people, especially with those with more experience. He is easy to communicate with,” he said.
“Hun Sen…. only finished grade 3 or 4, before joining the resistance movement. Even though he studied a little bit, he learned very fast,” he added.
“In 1984, the party regarded Hun Sen as a smart leader. After the death of Chan Si, the party appointed him as prime minister on January 14 1985,” Mr Yeap said, referring to the prime minister who preceded Mr Hun Sen under the People’s Republic of Kampuchea.
Mr Hun Sen had started on his political path in 1978, when he became a founding member of the Kampuchean United Front for National Salvation, after fleeing to Vietnam in 1977 to avoid Khmer Rouge purges in the Eastern Zone, where he was himself a Khmer Rouge regimental commander. Formed in Vietnam in 1978, the Front consisted of former Khmer Rouge cadres, including Heng Samrin and Chea Sim, who fled to Vietnam also. Core members of the Front were prepared by Vietnamese officials to become Cambodia’s new leadership after the removal of the Khmer Rouge regime.
The Vietnamese army and the Front began their push against the Khmer Rouge on Christmas Day 1978, after Khmer Rouge forces began bloody raids into Vietnam earlier that year. They toppled the Democratic Kampuchea regime on Jan 7, 1979 and the Front’s leaders assumed their positions in the PRK government; Mr Hun Sen became Foreign Minister.
Russian diplomat Igor Rogachev was sent to Cambodia in February 1979 by the Soviet Union, which was supporting Vietnam’s overthrow of the Khmer Rouge, and was one of the first foreign diplomats to visit the country after the Vietnamese overthrow of Pol Pot, Elizabeth Becker wrote in her book “When the War Over.”
When he met the PRK’s young foreign minister, he was immediately impressed with Mr Hun Sen’s agile intellect, his ambitions for Cambodia and ability to quickly learn what Mr Rogachev told him, wrote Ms Becker.
“Hun Sen was a very good student, a very good pupil,” Mr Rogachev told Ms Becker, “It was clear he stood out from the others,” and as the first years in government passed, Hun Sen “broadened his vision, not only external affairs but internal affairs as well. He became an outstanding politician.”
Mr Hun Sen was born as Hun Bunnal on August 5, 1952, in Peam Koh Snar in Kompong Cham’s Stung Trang district, a village of tobacco farmers located on the banks of the Mekong River, according to his 1999 authorized biography “Strongman of Cambodia” by Harish and Julie Metha.
Local villager Tuon Sea, 69, said last week, he knew Mr Hun Sen as a child, when he was a neighbor of the Hun family.
“I was 24 when I came to live here in 1963, I know him as a neighbor,” Mr Sea said. “At that time he did not like to play as many games as the other kids but he often sat around to think.”
Chhe Noeun, 61, who claimed to be a childhood friend of the premier, said he spent much time listening to his younger friend talk. “He was one of the kids who is smarter than the others. His speaking, his rhetoric, was very good. During farm work he liked to chat a lot, he made a lot of jokes,” Mr Noeun said.
Mr Noeun said Mr Hun Sen left the village to stay in a pagoda in Phnom Penh when he was 16 years old, adding the Hun family had left the village around 1963 to move to Memot district in Kompong Cham province, located on the Vietnamese border, but they returned in 1969 after the start of the US bombing campaign in east Cambodia.
In the Mehta biography, Mr Hun Sen said he left the pagoda in Phnom Penh after unrest in the capital in 1969 and decided to join the resistance soon after the overthrow of then-Prince Sihanouk in 1970.
Mr Noeun said after Mr Hun Sen left the village he did not see him again until 1974 when he showed up on a motorbike at a local primary school as a Khmer Rouge cadre carrying an AK-47 rifle.
Hun Sen then told his friend, “I just come again today and I don’t know when I will come back or if I will die.”
During his time with the Khmer Rouge, Mr Hun Sen met his wife Bun Rany, then working as a Khmer Rouge nurse, and they married in 1975. They were allowed to marry because he was considered disabled after he lost his left eye in the battle for Phnom Penh earlier that year, Mr Hun Sen told Mr and Mrs Mehta, adding only the disabled were allowed to marry before turning 30.
One man who takes a darker view of Mr Hun Sen rise to power is Pen Sovann, the first prime minister of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea, who served as premier for only several months in 1981, before being arrested and held under house arrest in Hanoi for a decade by the Vietnamese government.
“Vietnam ordered me to be arrested by 12 armed soldiers. Hun Sen was there to read the charges against me,” Mr Sovann said during an interview at his Takeo province home.
Mr Sovann said that he was purged by the Vietnamese due to his support for a degree of free market reform, his opposition to what he perceived as lax rules on Vietnamese immigration to Cambodia and his opposition to the K-5 project, a massive defensive project started in the west of Cambodia in the mid 1980s to keep resistance forces on the Thai border from penetrating the interior of the country to battle the Phnom Penh government. K-5 was based on compulsory labor by the civilian population and is bitterly remembered for resulting in countless deaths from malaria and other diseases and land mines.
Mr Sovann, who was only released in 1992, knew Mr Hun Sen from the time he joined the Front in Vietnam and said that as the PRK’s new government was formed Mr Hun Sen initially objected to his appointment as foreign minister, arguing he was too young and inexperienced and lacked the educational credentials for the post.
“But after my explanation he accepted his position,” said Mr Sovann, who characterized Mr Hun Sen as smart and a talented public speaker, but also as an authoritarian with few scruples.
“He learns very fast and then he can lecture [on a topic] later on,” he said, before adding, “Hun Sen has outstanding capacities. His intellect is strong but he has no morals to go along with it.”
Mr Sovann said he was “not surprised” by Mr Hun Sen’s world-beating political longevity.
“Hun Sen likes power, he wants to increase his power. He doesn’t listen to anyone… If anyone criticizes him he will do anything to defend his power,” he added.
Although opinions on Mr Hun Sen’s accomplishments during his quarter of a century of rule varied among the researchers and observers contacted for this article, most acknowledged the transformation of war-torn Cambodia into a stable, peaceful country with an open and growing economy as his greatest achievement.
However, human rights abuses, land evictions, rampant corruption among government officials, a lack of an independent judiciary, and intimidation of political opponents, are part of life in Cambodia under Prime Minister Hun Sen, according to local and international human rights groups.
The country’s opposition party concurs with those sentiments.
SRP leader Sam Rainsy, who is currently in France but facing criminal charges here over the removal of posts along the border with Vietnam, said that during his long premiership Mr Hun Sen had shown his objectives were personal and did not serve ordinary Cambodians.
“It is obvious that Hun Sen’s only or predominant goal is to remain in power, to survive politically… Power is everything for him. But above all, power means impunity for him and his clan,” Mr Rainsy wrote in an email.
“But when survival is your life goal you cannot have any vision. This is why Cambodia under Hun Sen is going nowhere, if not down the drain, [through] corruption, poverty, human rights abuses, in spite of competent civil servants, dedicated civil society and abundant natural resources,” he wrote.
“Hun Sen has had only two ways in dealing with his political opponents: Buy them or eliminate them either physically, [through] grenade attack, military coup [...] or politically, [through] sham lawsuits.”
“There is no example in the whole world of any country being a democratic and prosperous one with the same top leader for decades,” Mr Rainsy added.
According to a confidential 2008 report on Cambodia by the Congressional Research Service, the research arm of the US legislature, “[T]he autocratic tendencies of Prime Minister Hun Sen have discouraged foreign investment and strained US-Cambodian relations.”
According to historian Evan Gottesman, author of the book “Cambodia After the Khmer Rouge,” the mere fact of Mr Hun Sen’s durability is itself exceptional.
“The fact that the same man who led Cambodia in 1985 could also run the Cambodia of 2010 is remarkable,” Mr Gottesman wrote in an e-mail.
“Hun Sen’s most impressive achievement was his ability to lead Cambodia from being an isolated communist country to economic and political integration with the non-communist countries of the region,” he said. “Hun Sen’s greatest failure is his failure to promote, in fact, his willingness to undermine, democratic institutions such as an independent judiciary, accountable security forces, and a professional civil service,” he added.
According to Gottesman, three qualities are central to Mr Hun Sen’s hold on power: The first is ideological flexibility, which he said became apparent when he decided to abandon communist orthodox ideas in the late 1980s when it suited the situation.
“The second is a willingness to be absolutely ruthless with his opponents when he feels it necessary. The third is his cultivation of a patronage system that supports him,” Mr Gottesman wrote.
Reflecting on how the character of the 1980s communist PRK regime, many of whose officials are still in the government, influences Cambodia today, Mr Gottesman said, “Cambodia’s government is still built on patronage systems that support top officials, with Hun Sen at the top.”
A “lack of an independent judiciary or accountability for human rights abuses [also] persist because these hallmarks of modern democracies do not serve the interests of leaders who intend to remain in power indefinitely,” he added.
Chea Vannath, an independent political analyst, said Mr Hun Sen’s most important accomplishment was restoring peace in Cambodia, while she said his premiership had lacked in producing economic growth and improving child and maternal health.
“His achievement is that he was able to bring peace to Cambodia, a very valuable achievement. His shortcoming is the economy, it moves but it stumbles… It seems the economy could have done better, maternal and child health should also be better,” she said.
“Human rights and political freedom are not real shortcomings. It’s normal in a post-conflict country,” she added.
Ms Vannath said Mr Hun Sen’s strengths had been his ability to cope and navigate a changing political climate and system, his “ability to equitably share political power with others” and his vigilance to not rest on his laurels.
“So far, another blessing is [his] good health,” she added.
According to historian Henri Locard, Mr Hun Sen is able to fascinate the Cambodian public.
“Hun Sen is a past master in the control of rhetoric…. He is sure to hold the majority of the population by the invisible thread and the fascination of his words,” he said.
“He also takes these opportunities to warn his underlings publicly to tow the line or, for the more affluent ones, to commit themselves to making some generous donations for a just cause,” Mr Locard added.
“The Cambodians relish all their newly-acquired freedoms…. With one major exception: the freedom to challenge his all-embracing power…. there is a great deal of self-censorship exerted in this country,” Mr Locard stressed.
Indeed, many consulted for this article, foreign and local, declined to comment on the prime minister.
CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap defended Prime Minister Hun Sen record on human rights abuse, tolerance of corruption and intimidation of political opponents.
“Fighting corruption is not easy. Europe and the US have these problems too,” he said, adding claims of intimidation were not true.
“Sam Rainsy breaks the law and then he says his rights are violated when he gets charged.”
Mr Yeap reminded that Mr Hun Sen and other CPP members had built up the country after its destruction by the Khmer Rouge.
“I would like to ask you who could do it? Sam Rainsy, Ranariddh, Kem Sokha couldn’t do it,” said Mr Yeap.
“They came later on, then they demanded this, they demanded that. They want freedom to attack everyone, everything. The CPP cannot allow them to do that.”
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