Asia’s longest-serving leader still not a statesman

Just three days before Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen jetted off to Paris for one of his first visits to France in years, Cambodian researchers discovered the remains of a  Cambodia-France Friendship Statue that had been destroyed by the genocidal Khmer Rouge in 1977.

The leader’s promise to repair the statue could so easily be read as a symbol of his government’s promise to repair relations with the West, now that Cambodia is increasingly fearful of its growing Chinese dependency.  

European states have been very critical of Hun Sen’s autocratic regime. Ahead of his state dinner at the Elysee Palace, Cambodia’s large exiled opposition movement in France hurled angry messages far and wide.

They noted that a French court is soon set to opine on whether Hun Sen’s bodyguards were behind a deadly grenade attack in Phnom Penh in 1997. A few months earlier, Hun Sen failed to persuade another French court to reprimand the Paris-based Sam Rainsy, his exiled main political rival, as a slanderer.  

At home, however, government-influenced newspapers crowed that Hun Sen “received the warmest and most cordial welcome” from French President Emmanuel Macron.

Indeed, there was hand-holding and hugs. But questions remained. Was Hun Sen greeted as Cambodia’s prime minister or as the outgoing chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)? The answer was a little of both. Because of the regional position, he co-chaired the inaugural EU-ASEAN Commemorative Summit in Brussels a few days later.

Cambodia hasn’t had a successful tenure as ASEAN chair this year, analysts say, but it’s given Hun Sen a final year in the international spotlight and, to varying degrees, has slightly sharpened his image in the West. Apart from dining with Macron, Hun Sen visited France last week to attend the “Standing with the Ukrainian People” conference.

Unlike some others in Southeast Asia, Hun Sen has resolutely backed the West in its condemnations of Russia’s invasion. 

Cambodia’s prime minister since 1985, Hun Sen may retire next year. In Cambodia, the 70-year-old’s legacy will be a peaceful society and a developing country, and his own eldest son comfortably installed as his successor. Abroad, his political footprint is shallower. 

Hun Sen at the Aid for Trade Global Review in Switzerland in 2019. Image: Facebook

However, classification as a true international statesman has bypassed Hun Sen, analysts say. Other Southeast Asian political luminaries, from Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew to Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohommad, are remembered as such; figures who not only defined the region but whose words are still turned to for political truisms.

Perhaps Hun Sen will leave behind an insightful memoir, à la Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, but it’s unlikely to be as influential or lauded. 

The “Machiavelli on the Mekong” has lived as fullest a political life as imaginable. Within four decades, he has held senior posts under an ultra-Maoist genocidal regime, a socialist-lite government and a notionally Western-looking multi-party system.

He then crafted a personalist dictatorship for himself and belies any attempt at ideological definition. He’s now arguably the world’s longest-ruling head of government (although some reckon Cameroon’s Paul Biya holds that crown). Vietnam, a de jure one-party communist state, has seen nine prime ministers come and go since Hun Sen came to power.

Many in the West will remember him as a tyrant, the leader who did more than any to destroy whatever chance there was of democratization in Cambodia in the early 1990s. (Foreign diplomats in Phnom Penh dubbed him “Saddam Hun Sen.”) 

Current Western politicians will remember him as the person who drove Cambodia into the arms of China, accentuated by allegations that he will allow China’s navy access to the country’s main naval base, opening a new southern flank and potential advantage for Beijing in the contested South China Sea.

In the latest US defense paper, released this month, the Pentagon stated that “the PRC’s military facility at Ream Naval Base in Cambodia will be the first PRC overseas base in the Indo-Pacific.” Phnom Penh has consistently denied that it has any secret naval base agreement with China, which if true would violate Cambodian law. 

However fair or not those characterizations, they’re not miles away from the views of some of his Southeast Asian contemporaries.

Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s late “founding father”, once remarked that Cambodia’s “present leaders,” meaning Hun Sen, “are the product of bitter, relentless struggles in which opponents were either eliminated or neutralized. They are utterly merciless and ruthless, without humane feelings.” Years later, he opined that its government was “too personalized around Prime Minister Hun Sen.”

Hun Sen’s rule has been brutal at times. His party came to power through violence. He has launched deadly coups against power-sharing partners. He was only able to remain a co-prime minister in 1993, after losing the country’s first democratic election, by threatening to lead several provinces to secede.

Hun Sen (C) addresses a political meeting in 1983. Photo: AKP

He has crushed internal and external rivals. A French court is soon set to decide whether his bodyguard unit played a part in a deadly grenade attack on a political rival in 1997. Freedom House’s latest Global Freedom index gives Cambodia a score of 24, just ahead of repressive Ethiopia and Kazakhstan. 

That said, his rule has overlapped with what may be remembered as Cambodia’s new “golden age.” He was one of the defectors who returned to overthrow the genocidal Khmer Rouge in 1979.

Becoming prime minister in 1985, aged just 33, he steered a Vietnamese-backed regime to a semblance of peace against exiled groups and foreign powers, some of whom plotted the Khmer Rouge’s return. Cambodia’s three-decade civil war finally came to an end in the late 1990s. 

In 1993, when the UN ended its brief oversight of the country, GDP per capita was around US$254. By last year, it had risen to almost $1,600, according to World Bank data. Poverty rates fell from 33.8% to 17.8% between 2009 and 2019.

In 1985, when he took power, the average Cambodian could expect to live 51 years. Now life expectancy is 70 years, a reflection of massive healthcare system improvements. There’s even a semblance of a welfare system. 

Phnom Penh and many other cities now resemble identikit Southeast Asian conurbations. Crime is low. People no longer need to fear a grenade being thrown into a restaurant or bar. During the Covid-19 pandemic, Cambodia was a standout star in the region for containment and vaccination.

“Based on politicians that I have spoken to, he commands a degree of admiration for his longevity, and the extent to which Cambodia has developed on his watch,” says Sebastian Strangio, a journalist and author of the book Hun Sen’s Cambodia

“In general, Southeast Asian politicians are more likely to judge Cambodia by its own historical benchmark and acknowledge the stability and development that has taken place under Hun Sen than to condemn its failure to meet a universal standard,” Strangio added.

“This inclines people in the region to be more generous to Hun Sen’s legacy than many Westerners are, but there are also Southeast Asian politicians who are scathingly critical of the human rights dimension to his rule.”

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen (C) poses for photos with garment workers during his visit to 15,000 factory employees in Phnom Penh on August 15, 2018. Photo: AFP

Hun Sen had a chance to counter his critics when Cambodia took over as chair of ASEAN earlier this year. His standing among neighbors wasn’t high beforehand. In 2020, a former Singaporean diplomat hinted that Cambodia and Laos should be kicked out of the bloc because of their political proximity to Beijing.  

Hun Sen found some good within the West after Cambodia co-sponsored several UN resolutions condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Yet his chairmanship of ASEAN is mostly viewed as unsuccessful. “Hun Sen has utterly failed as ASEAN chair,” Joshua Kurlantzick, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, puts it bluntly. 

There was little optimism from commentators before Cambodia took over the role. The last time it held the post, in 2012, things had ended badly.

Barack Obama, the then-US president, gave Hun Sen a cold shoulder when he visited Phnom Penh that year for annual regional summits. ASEAN’s ministers failed to put out a joint statement for the first time after a summit meeting because of Cambodia’s intransigence in defending its patron China over disputes in the South China Sea. 

Granted, it wasn’t a fortunate moment to take over as ASEAN chair. The region had been left divided over what to do about the Myanmar crisis, sparked by the military’s coup in February 2021. ASEAN agreed to an always-set-to-fail peace plan with the junta last year, which no Southeast Asia government really wanted to give up on. Cambodia inherited a policy of merely not inviting Myanmar’s junta top brass to meetings. 

But things began badly when Hun Sen took it upon himself to visit Naypyidaw in January to meet with Myanmar’s military junta, the first visit by a foreign leader since their coup. Other Southeast Asian governments complained they hadn’t been properly consulted before his visit. Malaysia and Indonesia kicked up a public fuss. In the end, his trip brought no tangible benefit. 

In fact, Hun Sen was made to look amateurish. His government briefed friendly newspapers that Min Aung Hlaing, the junta leader, had agreed to release several political prisoners, including the Australian economist Sean Turnell, an advisor to the ousted government. The Myanmar coup maker then said no such promise had been made, much to Hun Sen’s embarrassment

Many observers felt Hun Sen got outmaneuvered by Myanmar’s Min Aung Hlaing. Image: Facebook

Hun Sen did finally agree not to invite junta leaders to the ASEAN summits in Phnom Penh last month, although that was a precedent he inherited from the previous year’s chair. In the broader picture of the Myanmar crisis, Cambodia leaves the next ASEAN chair, Indonesia, with further headaches. 

“He has done nothing and the organization is splintering on how to deal with Myanmar, costing it its most valuable asset, the ability to reach consensus,” Kurlantzick said. 

That will almost certainly be the last time Hun Sen gets to take the reins of the ASEAN bloc. Cambodia next takes up the role in ten years’ time, by which he will certainly have resigned as prime minister. As Asia Times reported earlier this month, many analysts reckon that his long-planned dynastic succession is being sped up. Hun Manet, his eldest son and the present military chief, could take over as soon as next year, some think. 

If his tenure as ASEAN chair didn’t provide an ideal setting to capstone his rule on the international stage, Hun Sen gets a less glittering but more dulcifying opportunity next year. In May, Cambodia hosts the Southeast Asian Games for the first time. A 60,000-seat, Chinese-built main stadium will be the crown of events. Cambodia took home nine gold medals at the last tournament, its best tally since 1973.

The Games could provide Hun Sen with a salutary send-off.  They could also provide an ideal moment for Hun Sen to push his son and heir more into the international spotlight. Hun Manet has already traveled widely and met with premiers of Cambodia’s key partners, including Chinese President Xi Jinping and the Vietnamese leadership. 

Two months after the sporting event, Cambodia will hold a general election. Victory for Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) is assured. It has dissolved and cajoled any serious rival party and is now busy persuading opposition politicians to defect.

Perhaps it won’t win all 125 seats in parliament (as it did at the last general election in 2018), but a supermajority is assured. Some pundits now think Hun Sen will step down as prime minister directly afterward. If so, he will likely remain as party president, and possibly take up another backroom post to maintain some control as Hun Manet, who has never held an important political office, learns the ropes. 

Hun Manet, the son of Cambodian leader Hun Sen, is widely speculated to become prime minister when his father steps aside. Image: Facebook

“I think Hun Sen recognizes that the primary goal now is to hand off power to his heir and prevent anything from stopping this,” says Sophal Ear, associate dean and associate professor at the Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University.

But political succession in autocratic states is never easy and often end in conflict. Other Southeast Asian governments are mindful of that. Hun Sen has internal rivals who aren’t happy with his son getting the top job, and there’s no certainty conflict won’t erupt. Making sure that all party grandees, and their progeny, accept his own dynastic intentions would be an achievement of its own.  

His son installed as prime minister of a prospering Cambodia will be his legacy at home. Making sure the succession process remains peaceful might convince other foreign leaders to view him in a slightly better if not still dim light.

Follow David Hutt on Twitter at @davidhuttjourno