Embracing China, Facebook and himself, Cambodia's Hun Sen digs in

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has said he plans to stay in power for another decade or two.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has said he plans to stay in power for another decade or two.PHOTO: AFP

STUNG TRANG, Cambodia (NYTIMES) - As the sun rose over the murk of the Mekong River, the man who has ruled Cambodia for more than three decades, Prime Minister Hun Sen, clasped hands with the Chinese ambassador and beamed.

"The Chinese leaders respect me highly and treat me as an equal," Mr Hun Sen said, during the groundbreaking of a US$57 million (S$75 million) Chinese-funded bridge in the district of Stung Trang last month (February).

"Let me ask those of you who have accused me of being too close to China," he added. "What have you offered me besides cursing and disciplining me and threatening to put sanctions on me?"

For a quarter century, the West helped rebuild Cambodia while it was still reeling from the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime. The United States and Europe tied billions of dollars in aid to an effort to transform Cambodia into a liberal democracy.

That campaign has failed. Instead, Cambodia has come to stand as the highest-water mark for China's influence in South-east Asia and as the stage for Mr Hun Sen's evolution into one of Asia's most unstinting autocrats.

Mr Hun Sen, 65, likes to be known as Lord Prime Minister and Supreme Military Commander, and has said he plans to stay in power for another decade or two. He is making sure of it: In recent months, his government has dissolved Cambodia's main opposition party ahead of general elections set for July, jailed dozens of critics and shuttered dissenting news media outlets.

In Senate elections late last month, his Cambodian People's Party swept all seats on offer.


Mr Hun Sen's enduring grip on power has been supported by China's largess, which comes without the West's admonishments to protect human rights and democratic institutions.

"Having alienated Western partners, Hun Sen will rely on Beijing's political and financial support, drawing Cambodia closer to China as a result," concluded a worldwide threat assessment by the US intelligence community.

Mr Hun Sen's authoritarian descent reflects an overall retreat of democracy across South-east Asia. There is also a perception across the region that the United States under President Donald Trump has withdrawn its influence, leaving China free to exercise its clout.

While some countries, like Vietnam, nurse historic grievances with China and have tried to resist its economic magnetism, others, like Laos and Cambodia, seem on the path towards becoming client states of Beijing.

"Cambodia is in danger of returning to being a totalitarian state," said Cambodia's former opposition lawmaker Mao Monyvann. "And the worst thing is that Hun Sen looked around and he saw that China supported him and that America was not punishing other Asian countries for doing similar things, so he just went ahead with his crackdown."

China is Cambodia's largest benefactor, providing the country with nearly one-third of its foreign investment last year. Beijing has gifted Cambodia 100 tanks and armoured personnel carriers.

"In terms of funding for infrastructure, we welcome any country that's willing," said Mr Sun Chanthol, Cambodia's Minister for Public Works and Transport. "But so far, only the Chinese are responding so generously."

The United States and other Western countries, meanwhile, are retreating further.

On Feb 27, the Trump administration announced it was cutting aid to Cambodia because the country's Senate elections "failed to represent the genuine will of the Cambodian people".

And Germany last month placed visa restrictions on members of the Cambodian government, including on Mr Hun Sen.

Mr Hun Sen has long condemned Western powers for treating Cambodians as pawns in a geopolitical game. He has a point: The French colonised Cambodia, and the Americans bombed the countryside. A state-building experiment by the United Nations spread graft.

But his government's accusations have grown increasingly outlandish.

Dissenting voices have been branded as Western agents. Mr Kem Sokha, the leader of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, was detained in September and charged with treason, accused of plotting a US-funded regime change. He denies the charges.

"The US wants to break up Cambodia and destroy our country," said government spokesman Phay Siphan. "The US is paranoid and wants the Cambodian government to be weak so it can come back to this region and chase China away."

During his 33 years leading Cambodia, Mr Hun Sen has displayed a faultless sense of when to switch sides.

The son of farmers became a fighter for the Khmer Rouge, whose murderous rule from 1975 to 1979 resulted in the deaths of about a fifth of the national population.

"Yes, we were Khmer Rouge soldiers," said Mr Hun Sen's cousin Dy Bit. "There was nothing else to do."

Mr Dy Bit's sister and neighbour were beaten to death by the radical communists.

"Some us killed and some of us were killed," he said.

But in 1977, Mr Hun Sen defected to neighbouring Vietnam. When Vietnamese troops ejected the Khmer Rouge from Phnom Penh two years later, Mr Hun Sen, at 26, returned as the world's youngest foreign minister.

By the time the United Nations arrived in 1992 to administer a transitional authority, Mr Hun Sen was firmly in control of Cambodia. He later sidelined his co-prime minister, whose party had won elections in 1993.

Throughout his political reinventions, perhaps only Mr Hun Sen's antipathy towards the United States has remained unchanged.

He grew up in a wooden house near the Mekong, in a province that was heavily bombed by the Americans as the Vietnam War spilled across the border.

While he led the puppet administration installed by the Vietnamese, Mr Hun Sen chafed at the fact that the United States refused to recognise his government. Instead, Washington, still smarting over its retreat from Vietnam, pushed for Cambodia to be represented at the United Nations by the Khmer Rouge, which still held a corner of Cambodia.

Mr Hun Sen has never been invited to the White House. But he has travelled to Beijing numerous times, and in 2016, President Xi Jinping of China visited Cambodia.

Mr Hun Sen has, however, borrowed from Mr Trump's playbook.

At the Mekong bridge ceremony, Mr Hun Sen pointed out New York Times journalists in the crowd and noted that the newspaper had been given "fake news" awards by Mr Trump. He then warned that if The Times' report was not suitably positive, "the Cambodian people will remember your faces".

Other times, he has been more direct. In a speech March 3, Mr Hun Sen called Mr William Heidt, the US ambassador to Cambodia, a "liar ambassador".

Mr Hun Sen has proved adept at using social media. The public relations firm Burson-Marsteller says that his interactions on Facebook make him the third-most engaged leader in the world, although the opposition accuses Mr Hun Sen of buying his "likes" through click farms.

On a cool February morning, Mr Hun Sen addressed 10,000 young garment workers on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. The speech was broadcast live on Facebook, and a stream of hearts and thumbs up floated across his page.

After the hourlong talk, Mr Hun Sen posed for photos with members of the crowd. Every worker was given the equivalent of US$5 in cash in an envelope that specified the money was a gift from Mr Hun Sen and his wife, Bun Rany.

Yet his Cambodian People's Party is not assured of the youth vote in the election scheduled for July 29. In the last election, in 2013, the opposition, buoyed by support from young Cambodians, threatened to unseat the ruling party.

Mr Hun Sen's campaign strategy has been to position his government as the sole guarantor of peace in Cambodia.

"Without us, there would still be war, and you wouldn't have the choice to work in factories," he told the garment workers.