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Hun Sen: The ex-Khmer Rouge soldier keeping his grip on Cambodia

Tang Chhin Sothy, AFP | Hun Sen, shown here in Phnom Penh, July 27 2018, became

After 33 years of ruling Cambodia with an iron fist, Prime Minister Hun Sen – a former soldier in the Khmer Rouge – looks set to strengthen his grip on power in Sunday’s parliamentary elections.

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On the campaign trail, the Cambodian ruler has promised his opponents “hell” and asked them to “prepare their coffins” for a disputed result – all the while emphasising that he wants to stay in power “for the next two terms”.

Hun Sen became prime minister in 1985, at just 32, and he has so far managed to adapt to the ever-changing political climate his country has seen since the Cold War.

“Hun Sen’s big strength – I would say his genius – lies in his ability to survive all the upheavals,” Sam Rainsy, a former opposition leader now in exile in France, told AFP.

Cambodia elections: A choice between strongman Hun Sen or boycott

‘Ruling elite controls all institutions’

In order to stay at the top, Hun Sen has not hesitated to put repressive measures in place, notably targeting the press and the opposition. That is while his entourage has controlled large parts of the economy for several years, with much of the rest falling into the hands of Cambodia’s neighbour China.

Hun Sen – who exhibits the telltale habit of referring to himself in the third person – has also built a political dynasty: his three sons hold key positions in the ruling party and the military, while playing prominent roles in the election campaign.

“Cambodian ruling elite – the Hun Sen nexus – consists of his family, ruling party, the security forces,” said Andrea Girogetta, Asia director of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH). “This elite controls all Cambodian institutions, as well as swathes of the economy.”

From hardline communism to free-market economics

Born in 1952 to a peasant family in central Cambodia, Hun Sen never finished school. At twelve, while the war was raging in neighbouring Vietnam, he moved to the capital, Phnom Penh.

He began to flirt with political activism in the late 1960s. Then when Cambodia sank into civil war in 1970, he was conscripted into what would become the Khmer Rouge army, which later perpetrated a campaign of genocide that killed nearly two million people.

While Hun Sen has claimed to have opposed the Khmer Rouge since 1975, the year it captured Phnom Penh, in reality, he was still anchored in the ultra-Maoist movement, losing an eye while fighting in their ranks and climbing to the position of deputy regional commander.

In 1976, he married a nurse, Bun Rany. Fearing that he would targeted in the next purge, he fled to Vietnam the subsequent year.

Hun Sen returned to Cambodia in 1978, joining the government set up by the Vietnamese. After quickly rising through the ministerial ranks, he abandoned the communist dogma of his mentors in Hanoi, embracing neoliberal economics instead.

‘I’ll crush the dogs’

In 1993, Hun Sen’s party lost the first UN-organised elections in the country. But he managed to stay on top, taking the position of co-prime minister with Nordom Ranariddh, the royalist leader who won the election.

But in 1997, Hun Sen put an abrupt end to this power-sharing arrangement, dismissing Ranariddh. Since then, he has never lost an election.

Hun Sen “shows a remarkable ability to find and exploit the weaknesses of his opponents”, said Sebastian Strangio, an independent journalist and author of “Han Sen’s Cambodia”.

“He also has a particular knack for playing on fears of a return to the dark days of massacres and civil war,” Strangio added.

At the height of the Arab Spring, Hun Sen issued a warning to the Cambodian people: “I’ve got a message for people who might see the Tunisian riots as an example to follow: I will close the borders and crush the dogs.”

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