HUN SEN’S REIGN was never supposed to last this long. The Vietnamese Communists who in 1979 installed him, then a tongue-tied mid-20s ex–Khmer Rouge commander, as their puppet foreign minister certainly did not expect this. Neither did the international community.
Sen has defied all expectations, emerging from the Mekong River–hugging lowlands of Kampong Cham to rule Cambodia as prime minister, first in the Vietnamese-controlled People’s Republic of Kampuchea, then under the United Nations’s democracy-focused eye, later as the country’s co-premier, then again on his own, and now still solo, but increasingly under China’s influence. Throughout these near-tectonic shifts, one thing — Sen’s self-interest — has remained constant.
January 14, 2020, will mark 35 years since he came to power. But Sen, who’s only 67, has no apparent intention of stepping down, although he seems to be priming his son Hun Manet for succession. Meanwhile, his autocratic crackdowns have intensified, and the Cambodian condition remains dire: Corruption is endemic, and some 80 percent of Cambodians survive on subsistence farming. The kleptocrat may now wear Cambodian rather than French colonial colors, but for the country’s rural majority life is distressingly similar to its previous analogues.
Still, Sen’s self-crafted legacy hinges mainly on a narrative of deliverance. He claims to have ended Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge period and brought about a newfound era of peace, stability, and marginal development. “Your contemporary poverty and stability,” Sen’s narrative seems to tell Cambodians, “is better than the state of war in which you’d be without me.” But his true legacy is of autocracy, of fear and corruption, and, ultimately, of contempt for and betrayal of those Cambodians who he has long failed to serve.
Sen spent his early years in Kampong Cham, but by the mid-1960s his parents had sent him, then either 12 or 13, to live and study at a pagoda in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. Autocratic and self-indulgent Cambodian leader Prince Norodom Sihanouk ordered the public execution of alleged traitors in 1969, and anti-Sihanouk sentiment took hold of some of Sen’s friends; at least one was arrested. Fearing his own potential detainment, Sen fled to Kampong Cham, settling in Vietnam-bordering district of Memot, according to 2015 Human Rights Watch report “30 Years of Hun Sen.”
The United States was at this point entrenched in the Vietnam War and drowning Cambodia, officially neutral but allowing North Vietnam to use its territory, in more bombs than the Allies dropped on the Axis during the entirety of World War II. This bombardment killed at least 200,000 Cambodians and helped the Khmer Rouge recruit followers. The ultra-nationalist Maoists would eventually kill about two million people, a quarter of Cambodia’s population. But they gained popular support by promising to stop the bombing.
Sen bore witness to this explosive rain, instilling in him what he says was anti-American sentiment. It was this anger, coupled with a standard Cambodian respect for Sihanouk, that seems to have brought him, like countless others, to join the Khmer Rouge. Scholar Ben Kiernan asserted in the late 1990s than Sen was by 16 already a courier for them.
Then, on March 18, 1970, US-favored General Lon Nol deposed Sihanouk, transforming Cambodia from a neutral to an American-aligned state and forcing the monarch into Chinese and North Korean exile. Stung by betrayal, Sihanouk agreed to lead the Khmer Rouge’s resistance, urging people over the radio to join their insurgency. He also appeared in propaganda films and booklets that “helped the Communists recruit peasants in Cambodia and gave respectability to their cause,” The New York Times reported. The paper of record charitably noted that “[i]n the end, King Sihanouk helped bring Pol Pot to power.”
The New Yorker’s Philip Gourevitch was later less forgiving: Sihanouk’s “name became the Khmer Rouge’s greatest recruitment tool, and the most extreme Communist movement in history swept to power on royal coattails.” By the end of April, the teenaged Sen was a Khmer Rouge platoon leader, and in 1971 he began to rise through their ranks, putting him well within its political and military structures, per Human Rights Watch. But in April 1975, he was wounded by shrapnel, leaving him unconscious for about a week — and without a left eye. While still recovering, Sen was promoted; he rejoined his regiment in Memot in May.
Around this time, Cambodia’s Muslim Cham communities began to oppose the Khmer Rouge. The guerrillas detested the Cham and Vietnamese living in Cambodia, viewing both as having no place in their agrarian Khmer utopia. They rounded up Chams, forced them to eat pork, banned their traditional language, and burned their Qur’ans.
In the fall of 1975, two eastern Cham villages rose up; the Khmer Rouge cracked down viciously in what amounted to My Lai–style massacres. Hun Sen was at the time a commander in those parts of Cambodia, but he has repeatedly denied his regiment’s involvement. Numerous other accounts contradict this though, implicating Sen’s unit, Battalion 55, in certain attacks. Brad Adams, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, wrote in 2015:
According to one testimony by a former Sector 21 regiment combatant, after the unrest broke out and had already spread to Svay Khleang, Battalion 55 was dispatched from the border to suppress it. This is corroborated by the account of a Krauch Chhmar resident who observed Sector 21 troops moving into battle, saying that the units that suppressed the Cham unrest in 1975 were Krauch Chhmar District Military forces, based at the district seat on the Mekong, and Battalion 55[.] […] The attackers bombarded the village with 60 and 82 millimeter mortar rounds, while also firing on villagers with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, killing hundreds of villagers.
Cambodia’s UN-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal, whose mandate extends only to the group’s senior-level officials — which Sen was not — has for years crawled along, delivering justice at a snail-like pace, largely because of Sen’s opposition to its continued operation. But in November 2018, it finally ruled Khmer Rouge crimes against Cham and Vietnamese to constitute genocide.
So I sat, in the sterile courtroom on Phnom Penh’s coral-dusted outskirts, surrounded by Cham survivors and their descendants, delicately capped men and headscarved women, as the tribunal made its ruling, prompting tears to flow — and implicating, at least by association, their prime minister in the worst of all crimes.
“How far Mr. Hun Sen participated in these brutalities is not known,” Steven Erlanger once reported for The New York Times. “[B]ut it is hard to imagine that he stood aside.”
Hun Sen says that by 1976 he began to disagree with certain Khmer Rouge practices, namely their attacks against Vietnamese border villages. The Communists, who took control of Cambodia in April 1975, were also pursuing mass internal purges. So, in June, Sen because of his disagreements (and probably fearing purging) defected to Vietnam, embarking upon a new chapter of opportunism and puppetry.
By December 1978, Hanoi had become fed up with the Khmer Rouge’s Vietnamese massacres and invaded Cambodia to oust their former allies. Sen returned with a force of exiled Cambodians he’d formed to assist Vietnam (“Cambodia’s historical archenemy,” as Anthony Bourdain once wrote). By January 1979, Vietnam had forced the Khmer Rouge back into the jungles from which they came, and from where they would wage war for over a decade.
Vietnam after plundering Phnom Penh announced the names of those who would lead its puppet Cambodian government to be known as the People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK). This list, The New York Times reported, comprised an array of “unknown” Cambodian defectors including Hun Sen, the 26- or 27-year-old who would be the foreign affairs minister.
The PRK was a police state of which Sen, following the arrest and death of his predecessors, became prime minister on January 14, 1985. He was 32, and in control of the PRK’s armed forces and security units, which he wielded ruthlessly to imprison thousands of political opponents who were then tortured using “electric shocks, hot irons and near-suffocation with plastic bags,” according to a 1987 Amnesty International report. Meanwhile, food was scant, malnutrition widespread, and infrastructure ruined; war with the Khmer Rouge continued; Vietnam’s presence remained dominant.
Sen, there only by the grace of Hanoi, was Vietnam’s malleable marionette.
But in October 1991, under American, Chinese, and Soviet oversight, Sen’s government reached an accord, the Paris Peace Agreements, with three guerilla groups — including the Khmer Rouge — previously pursuing the PRK’s ouster. The agreement promised 1993 elections, in which all including the Khmer Rouge would compete. The accord also put the United Nations effectively in charge of the country until a democratic transition could take place.
And so Sihanouk returned in November 1991 from exile, stepping off his Chinese jet to a reception of dazzling dancers and lush flower petals, a beaming Hun Sen — whom he’d previously called a “one-eyed lackey” of Vietnam — and crowds of Cambodians conscripted by their government or schools to welcome the monarch who had helped bring about mass Maoist murder.
The New York Times, apparently buoyed by the era’s optimism, proclaimed that Sihanouk and Sen, despite their “different generations and different ideologies” had “become close allies, if not close friends.”
“You are my son now and, as my son, you may come to the palace whenever you wish,” Sihnaouk told Sen upon accepting from him the keys to the Royal Palace. “You are always welcome, Mr. Hun Sen.”
But Sihanouk, always the predicted victor — and always in it for himself — could not possibly have known what would come next. Hardened by war and wisened by governance, Sen would soon neuter the power of the palace into which Sihanouk had forever welcomed him, and whose progeny he would eventually betray.
Enshrined by the Paris agreements, the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) was tasked with both military and civilian components, and with organizing, rather than solely supervising or observing elections. It was nothing like the organization’s previous missions, and, for good reason, nothing like its following counterparts. It would cost upward of $2 billion.
The situation quickly deteriorated. A major uprising took hold of Phnom Penh in December 1991. Sen, still the prime minister, demanded that the protests cease; they did not. By February, anti-government dissidents were in hiding after gunmen tried to kill the government’s most prominent opponent. And in January 1993, Sihanouk pulled out of the peace deal, citing “the extreme gravity and persistent continuation of the crimes perpetrated” against his political party FUNCINPEC, The New York Times reported.
UNTAC, having failed to secure insurgent demobilization and administrative supervision, “went all-in,” as Sebastian Strangio later wrote in his book Hun Sen’s Cambodia, on its sole remaining objective: the holding of free and fair elections. “But earlier failures meant that the ‘political environment’ ahead of the election would be anything but ‘neutral,’” Strangio notes. “[T]he atmosphere was marked by intimidation and violence.”
The three largest parties all built their campaigns on fear, but Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) formed attack squads — “A-Teams” — to operate under state consent. Strangio writes that these A-Teams killed about 200 opposition activists between November 1992 and May 1993. UNTAC documented the killings, but “was powerless to stem the violence.” The mission had been relying on Sen’s government to maintain order.
Still, the May elections were relatively peaceful. The air and, indeed, even the weather, deceptively bore the markings of hope. As Philip Shenon reported for The New York Times:
[V]oters turned out by the tens of thousands in an early morning drizzle for the chance to vote — for most of Cambodia’s 4.7 million registered voters, the first chance in their lives to pick their own government. Cambodians say it is a sign of good fortune when it rains on an important day.
The two largest parties were the royalist FUNCINPEC, of which the revered Sihanouk — known still as “Samdech Euv” or “father king” — had handed over to his son Ranariddh, and Sen’s CPP. Many Cambodians, knowing little about democracy, voted for FUNCINPEC to demonstrate loyalty to their Samdech Euv, giving his party a victorious 46 percent of the vote; the incumbent CPP came in next with 38 percent.
But Sen had expected an easy victory. He subsequently rejected his loss, instead stoking and “solving” a secession crisis. Ranariddh, seeing Sen’s strength, agreed to share power with him in an interim government. Both would serve as co-prime ministers, with Sihanouk as head of state.
The CPP and FUNCINPEC, despite the former’s electoral victory, ended up with equal power. UNTAC, exhausted and hurtling toward a $2 billion strikeout, eventually acquiesced to the undemocratic outcome of their democracy-building project. The international community was equally pliable; nobody could stomach the prospect of battles with CPP forces.
In October 1993, the United States legitimized Sen’s coup when Secretary of State Warren Christopher presented him and Ranariddh at New York City’s Park Avenue Waldorf-Astoria Hotel as the guarantors of Cambodian democracy. When the ceremony was over, “everybody in the room broke out into applause,” Kenneth Quinn, then the US deputy assistant secretary of state, later told Strangio. “I thought it was a testimony […] that, in fact, Cambodia had somehow been saved.”
But the international community had overlooked Sen, underestimating his unrelenting nature.
They did so at Cambodia’s peril.
Eighteen months after elections, even tentative international boasting began to dissipate.
A failed coup had already been attempted. The Cambodian army was bloated and had developed a reputation for corruption and human rights abuses. The Khmer Rouge still controlled parts of the country. And hope that the reinstated Sihanouk could provide a salve faded as he returned to Beijing to battle cancer.
Ranariddh proved “effete and ineffective,” per Strangio — in deep contrast to Sen, whose experiences rendered him a purposeful tactician. Corruption flourished within the government, whose ministries were split between the two parties. FUNCINPEC Finance Minister Sam Rainsy spoke out against corruption in 1994; he was soon after expelled from the party and stripped of his parliament seat.
“I wanted to impose proper supervision and tax collection over timber exports. The vested interests involved were prepared to resist this at any cost,” Rainsy told me. “Sen was the central point of this system.”
Still, the international community doubled down and continued to send hundreds of millions in aid to prop up the floundering Cambodian state — and perhaps also their own fantastical belief in post-Soviet state-building’s merits.
Sen, meanwhile, was building his personal bodyguard unit into “a small personal army,” according to Strangio. Rainsy had also built up political power, founding a party and allying it with FUNCINPEC.
On March 30, 1997, Rainsy held a political rally in Phnom Penh. “I didn’t feel very well,” he recalled, explaining that he spoke for less time than originally planned. “The next speaker was a woman with her baby who had lost her house to property speculators and had been told that she needed to bribe a judge to get it back.”
A minute after Rainsy stopped speaking, the explosions started. The first, the Washington Post reported, “sounded like a large cherry bomb going off at a Fourth of July parade.” Then came three more in rapid succession which blew the limbs off dozens of onlookers, leaving at least 10 people dead and 100 injured. “The sudden instinctive reaction of my bodyguard Han Muny to shield me from the blast […] cost him his life,” Rainsy said.
Sen denounced the bombing. But his personal bodyguard unit, despite being on scene, “not only failed to prevent the attack, but was seen by numerous witnesses opening up its lines to allow the grenade-throwers to escape and threatening to shoot people trying [to pursue the attackers],” according to Human Rights Watch.
“There is no question that Hun Sen was behind the attack,” Rainsy told me, referencing a 1999 US Senate report that reached the “common sense conclusion” that Sen “bears ultimate responsibility for this act of terrorism.” (The report says that “members of Hun Sen’s Bodyguard Force participated in the planning and execution” of the attack and that “Hun Sen […] must have known and approved of [it].”)
Just months later, it became clear how far Sen was willing to go — and for what he had been building an army.
At dawn on July 5, Sen’s forces moved against Ranariddh’s, securing Phnom Penh’s airport, rampaging through the city and looting an estimated $50 million worth of goods, executing an unknown number of civilians along the way. The coup eliminated FUNCINPEC, forcing Ranariddh into exile. Sen, only 45, basked in the light of supreme control.
“Don’t forget to take plenty of pictures,” he soon after told photographers, sitting alone as his first cabinet meeting following the ouster. “I am the captain alone.”
In 1998, Cambodia was set to have elections. Ignoring the counsel of more moderate CPP cadres, Sen refused to allow for free or fair voting. He instead controlled broadcasting; CPP chiefs ran polling stations, while the party promised goods to some in exchange for votes, simply threatening others.
The CPP claimed victory. Monitoring groups called the election “fundamentally flawed,” but others Western actors pushed positivity: “We traced no tensions,” said Swedish diplomat Sven Linder. “We have not traced any atmosphere of intimidation.”
“Hun Sen got the world’s endorsement for an election that was neither free nor fair,” Pulitzer Prize winner Tina Rosenberg wrote at the time. “The mouse, after all, also trains the scientist. When he rings the bell, the good doctor brings him cheese.”
Rosenberg’s icy assessment has remained applicable for decades, particularly in reference to Washington’s policies toward Phnom Penh. Bill Clinton normalized relations with Cambodia in 1993. Later, in hopes of extending American influence, he sent Sen’s eldest son Hun Manet to the US Military Academy at West Point at US taxpayer expense.
But the 1999 Sen-indicting Senate report also implicated Clinton’s administration. It concluded that by June 1997, the United States “was in possession of overwhelming evidence” that Sen orchestrated the attack on Rainsy — “and has done nothing about it.”
American “passivity on this matter has had profoundly negative consequences for democracy in Cambodia,” the report continued. “With U.S. Government acquiescence, he [Sen] has succeeded in completely overturning the results of the 1993 U.N. elections, and gained international recognition of this feat to boot.”
“Part of this acquiescence has been the total unwillingness of the U.S. Government to confront Hun Sen.”
This passivity continued under President George W. Bush. After the September 11 attacks, his administration feared that Cambodia, with its Cham Muslims and porous borders, could become a terrorist safe haven. They subsequently deepened US security ties with Sen, who triumphed again in unfair 2003 elections. Bush in 2004 helped establish Cambodia’s National Counter-Terrorism Committee, which, as without legitimate targets as it was at creation — the Cham never showed Wahhabist inclinations — is now a “personal intelligence service for the prime minister,” according to a 2014 PRI report. Up for elections in 2008, the CPP with its mechanisms of dominance again triumphed. Regardless, President Barack Obama in 2012 became the first sitting US president to visit Cambodia. During this visit, he publicly sidestepped Sen’s abuses, hoping to enlist him to counter China’s claims to the South China Sea. Obama later expanded counterterrorism assistance to Cambodia, despite protests from human rights groups.
Then in 2013, Sen experienced his most notable electoral setback since 1993. The nascent Rainsy-led Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) secured unprecedented gains in CPP-advantaged elections. Irregularities prompted massive anti-Sen protests in Phnom Penh. For a moment, it appeared that Cambodia’s dictator might have lost his grasp on power.
The EU and United States expressed concern with the results, siding tentatively with protestors. But French and Australian Prime Ministers Jean-Marc Ayrault and Tony Abbott, respectively, both congratulated Sen.
Misplaced international optimism again won the day, allowing Sen to push on, undeterred.
On July 10, 2016, prominent political commentator Kem Ley pulled into a Phnom Penh gas station for his morning cup of coffee. As the humid dawn broke across Cambodia’s capital, Ley was shot dead at point-blank range, purportedly over a personal debt. His corpse lay in the street for hours; bystanders prevented authorities from removing him, fearing that police would contaminate or destroy evidence.
Ley was a beloved public pedagogue who delivered political explainers and plain-spoken criticism of the CPP, and occasionally of the CNRP, to his large audience. Just days before his killing, Ley gave radio interviews about bombshell Global Witness report “Hostile Takeover” that detailed the Hun clan’s vast accumulation of wealth.
CNRP leader Rainsy, who went into self-imposed exile in 2005 for fear of imprisonment, accused Sen of orchestrating the assassination. There was “no other explanation,” he said. Ley’s shooting mirrored the previous killings of union leader Chea Vichea, in 2004, and of environmental activist Chut Wutty, in 2012. Still, Cambodia’s opposition kept pushing, and in June 2017 the CNRP, led now by parliamentarian Kem Sokha, surprisingly made further gains in flawed elections. But as Isaac Newton knew, for every action, there must be an equal and opposite reaction. Perhaps even he underestimated Sen.
As the summer turned into fall, Sen’s government ramped up its crackdown, arresting Sokha on false treason charges, closing one of Cambodia’s two main independent newspapers (it would neuter the other in 2018), and then, in November, through the Supreme Court dissolving the CNRP.
Cambodia, for the first time since its PRK era, was a one-party state.
Mu Sochua, a CNRP parliamentarian, had in March 2017 become the party’s vice president. Sochua as a teenager fled Khmer Rouge Cambodia for Paris and then San Francisco, but returned after nearly two decades abroad to Cambodia in 1989 to advocate for human rights and women’s equality. She eventually joined FUNCINPEC and won a national assembly seat to represent Battambang, the northern seat of Cambodian rice production, in 1998. She was shortly after selected to head the Ministry of Women’s and Veterans’ Affairs, also serving as a special advisor to Ranariddh.
“The trouble came when I wanted to address the plight of factory workers,” Sochua told me. In 2004, there were regular strikes led by the aforementioned Chea Vichea and Sam Rainsy; Sochua resigned and joined Rainsy’s opposition after Vichea’s still-unsolved assassination.
In 2013, she was once again elected to parliament, this time on the CNRP ticket. Upon the party’s 2017 illegalization, she told local media: “[T]he Supreme Court gave a blow to democracy but not a fatal one, as the democratic movement for change inside and outside Cambodia will be glued together stronger than ever.”
But Sochua’s understandable self-preservation betrayed her optimism. She had fled the country a month earlier after being warned of her coming arrest. “If I had stayed,” she said, “I would have been arrested like Kem Sokha or been silenced.” (Kem Sokha was in late 2019 released from house arrest but is still barred from politics and facing a bogus treason trial.)
Little over a year after Sochua’s flight and the CNRP’s dissolution, Cambodia held an election in June 2018. The result — the CPP won about 80 percent of the vote — was a foregone conclusion.
Hun Sen’s Cambodia had by this point cemented its status as party-personalist dictatorship, as Griffith University lecturer Lee Morgenbesser terms it. Sen determines hiring to governmental posts and maintains a monopoly over both the country’s security apparatus and the CPP’s decision-making process.
And yet, after the polls closed in 2018, Sen told Cambodians: “You have truly chosen the path of democracy.”
Indeed, they had 25 years ago, when they voted for FUNCINPEC. They had repeatedly tried since by voting for various oppositions. And now, the dictator who had long thwarted their will was mocking them. Democracy was long-dead, but Sen was perhaps more politically alive than ever before.
“It is as if this Government recognized that only in comparison with the evil that came before can it find legitimacy in the eyes of a people it rules with a stern hand,” Henry Kamm once reported for The New York Times. “However, even Cambodia’s overseers admit that the constant reference to Pol Pot is not providing the necessary impetus to make a dispirited nation of seven million rise again to its feet.”
Kamm was writing in 1987, when Cambodia was still ruled by Sen’s PRK and derived legitimacy from simply not being the Khmer Rouge. Cambodia has changed dramatically since, but Kamm’s assessment remained surprisingly valid for years. Sen long-secured some public support by repeatedly warning of and threatening a return to violence — reminding Cambodian elders he delivered them from the Khmer Rouge and that they now owed him.
“Words can cause war if the CPP loses patience and goes to your homes and burns down your homes,” Sen said ahead of 2017 elections, according to Financial Times. “The only solution is that the CPP must win elections at all stages.”
This was not enough to make the dispirited rise; but it was enough to keep them in line.
A side effect of genocide, Cambodia is now overwhelmingly young, however. Almost two-thirds of the population is below the age of 30. These youth, unlike their parents and grandparents, do not feel indebted to Sen, instead focusing on complaints including China’s presence, developmental deficiencies, skyrocketing household debt, and a lack of jobs. The Hun Sen government seems aware of this youth threat: they recently blocked over a dozen young Cambodian activists’ passports.
“Without memories of the Khmer Rouge and the wars, they don’t feel they owe Hun Sen or any party anything,” Ou Virak, the founder of independent Cambodian think tank Future Forum, told me. “We have now generations of people that expect and demand more from their government.”
I subsequently asked Phay Siphan, a spokesman for Sen’s government, how much longer the prime minister planned to stay in power and what the government has to say to those who argue Sen has both been in power too long and undermined democracy. Siphan answered neither question but tried to maintain Sen’s veneer of legitimacy.
“SPM’s power is the choice of CPP and Cambodian voters. SPM is the nation-builder person.” Siphan told me, using “SPM,” an abbreviation of the honorific “Samdech” (which roughly translates to “lord”) Prime Minister. “He builds the democracy by maintaining peace and stability for life quality and equity sharing of economy growth.”
Cambodia under Sen has in fact experienced significant economic development, creating a middle class unimaginable 40 years ago. But such progress is “a double-edged sword,” according to Virak. This middle class is increasingly educated, traveled, and able to access international ideas; they “have more expectations, have more to lose and more anxiety,” creating a “growing and untenable gap between the ruler and the ruled,” he said. “Tension between the ruling elite and the people is now a new normal.”
This gap is reflected perhaps most brazenly in the gleaming face of Sen’s $2 million Patek Philippe watch. Cambodia remains one of the poorest countries in Asia — the country’s average annual household income hovers around $1,300 — but the Hun clan has somehow amassed an estimated $200 million fortune, according to Global Witness.
Rapidly growing Cambodian anti-Chinese sentiment is further exacerbating this friction. But Sen has hitched his wagon to Beijing, and Cambodia, despite rhetoric to the opposite effect, has become a Chinese vassal state. Sen receives political and financial support from Beijing; Cambodia in return has repeatedly blocked the Association of Southeast Asian Nations from countering China’s claims to the South China Sea. Cambodia is a member of China’s Belt and Road Initiative; China is Cambodia’s biggest investor; Cambodia even plans to give China use of a naval base in the Gulf of Thailand, The Wall Street Journal reported this past summer.
“The Chinese leaders respect me highly and treat me as an equal,” Sen said in February 2018.
But it’s hard to imagine Sen, like Sihanouk before him, believes his own rhetoric or cares about much more than himself. Over three decades, he has demonstrated one thing invariably: a “faultless sense of when to switch sides,” as The New York Times Southeast Asia Bureau Chief Hannah Beech eloquently puts it.
Hanoi’s puppet? A keen balancer of Washington and Beijing, or just a serf of the latter? It doesn’t seem to matter to Sen as long as he retains his grip on power. That now means aligning with Beijing, particularly as public support for his regime continues to decline.
This dissatisfaction has yet to manifest itself politically, namely because Sen-instilled fear has forced many to simply abandon the sphere. “Young people are increasingly more cautious to openly criticize [the] CPP,” a Cambodian journalist in Phnom Penh recently told me. “What’s happened in 2017 and the following years makes them less hopeful. The young don’t see new faces, new input, or new approach. They don’t want to care.” In early December, unknown assailants beat a 51-year-old former elected CNRP official — a widow and mother of two — unconscious in Phnom Penh. Over a dozen former opposition members have been assaulted similarly since August.
“The current government, given they are struggling to draw their legitimacy from election, is fearful of its people,” Virak told me. “They are holding on to power through force and fear and the promise of peace, stability, and continuous economic benefits.”
Despite lacking public legitimacy, Sen’s CPP holds every seat in the country’s two parliamentary organs. (“Pluralistic [sic] is the principle of people’s sovereign choice,” governmental spokesman Siphan told me.)
And yet, some forced-diasporic opposition figures believe at least tentatively in the possibility of change. “Our people know who they want as their leaders,” Sochua told me when I asked what she wants to say to Sen. “Give them that chance.”
This window will not likely soon open. China’s largesse has already enabled some states “to carry on their failing models longer than they should have,” according to the Brookings Institution. There’s no reason to think Hun Sen’s Cambodia will be exempted from this byproduct of Beijing’s backing.
“With China’s help and Hun Sen’s ability to out-maneuver most people, I think he will manage to hold on to power until his death,” Virak echoed.
Still, Sen, in preparation for the inevitable, has begun to elevate his West Point–educated son Hun Manet for succession. When Manet tries to take over, he will, however, for reasons both unique to Cambodia and standard to patrimonial successions, face significant public and elite opposition — both of which appear to be growing, as I’ve written elsewhere. Father-to-son successions usually require large-scale purges of elites in which the elevated son establishes a culture of fear. But it appears unlikely than Manet matches his father’s skills in this department.
“Sen won’t leave power of his own volition, but he is increasingly isolated within his own party,” Rainsy suggested. “There are figures in the CPP who understand that his plan to hand over to his son Hun Manet does not represent a viable future for our country.” It’s also unclear how China, already deeply invested in Cambodia, might respond to an uprising or potential regime change, but Beijing has already shown an unusual propensity to intervene in Cambodian politics.
“I think he will keep on waiting until he won’t be able to wait any longer,” Virak said of Sen. “That to me is when there is a real risk of instability.”
Indeed, Cambodia’s forecast appears more reminiscent of its chaotic past than the international community’s naïvely envisioned and ineffectively implemented democratic ideal. The end of history, it evidently was not.
And while predicting the future is never easy, all parties involved in crafting Cambodia’s finally, after 35 years, now recognize the need to factor in one immutable variable: Sen’s thirst for and willingness to do all things to hold on to power, seemingly no matter the Cambodian cost.
Rainsy and Sochua both yearn for free elections, even if such competition results in CPP victory or a CNRP-CPP coalition, as the former told me. But both recognize the unlikeness of Sen allowing such competition — and fear that reality.
“Democracy will have to wait for a long time” if Sen doesn’t allow elections, Sochua told me. “Unless people’s anger gets set off to street protest. But then it will be bloody.”
Charles Dunst is an MSc candidate in International Relations at the London School of Economics, and a journalist who has reported from Southeast Asia for The New York Times, The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, and the Los Angeles Times, among other publications. He was formerly based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.