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Cambodia: Hun Sen’s Three Decades as Prime Minister By Carlyle A. Thayer

C3S Paper No. 0014/ 2015


1. Amid great instability over the period, how has Hun Sen managed to stay in power for thirty years? To what extent does it come down to a personal excellence, fortune, electoral appeal, his political abilities, or else to authoritarianism?

ANSWER: Hun Sen has been able to remain as prime minister of Cambodia for three decades for three main reasons. First, he is a shrewd political tactician able to use personal influence and patronage to keep his support base intact and to manipulate those opposed to his rule. Second, Hun Sen is a great orator able to attract support from the rural masses. Third, Hun Sen has also demonstrated the ability to employ intimidation, coercion and force to remove threats to this rule. In 1985 Hun Sen inherited a political structure and a political party fashioned by the Vietnamese who are consummate institution-builders. During the period 1985-1991  the Khmer Rouge threat gave legitimacy to the People’s Republic of Kampuchea (later the State of Cambodia). Hun Sen must be credited with being practical in his approach to state-building and not letting rigid communist ideology dictate state economic and social policies. During the UNTAC period Hun Sen proved brilliant at thwarting the UN from undermining the Cambodian state under the Cambodian People’s Party. In other words, he was a shrewd political tactician. Hun Sen proved his mettle after the May 1993 election by refusing to step down and thus forcing the formation of a coalition government. Hun Sen assumed the role of co-prime minister. In July 1997 Hun Sen effectively employed force to undermine FUNCINPEC and its leader Norodom Ranariddh. From 1998-2013 Hun Sen was able to use his political and oratorical skills to attract a majority of the vote in successive national elections. In 2013, he overstepped the mark by manipulating the election results. This action coupled with longstanding grievances over his semi-authoritarian style of rule produced a popular backlash. Although the final chapter in his long career has yet to be written, Hun Sen still exhibits the political tactician’s skills to placate the opposition.

2. In terms of his legacy to the country, what have been Hun Sen’s major successes and failings as prime minister? Also, given the political constraints and the environment he has operated in, how would you rate Hun Sen’s time in power?

ANSWER: Hun Sen’s three biggest successes are, first, his ability to maintain the  stability of the Cambodian political system through periods of internal war and heated electoral contestation. Second, Hun Sen has traversed the path from being the world’s youngest prime minster to the world’s longest serving prime minister. He has weathered all challenges to his preeminent position. Third, Cambodia has developed under his tutelage and its economy is performing well on the basis of macro-economic indicators like growth in Gross Domestic Product. Hun Sen greatest failing is his undermining of the ideal of liberal democracy in Cambodia. This has many dimensions including electoral manipulation, a poor human rights record, impunity for the officials involved in the use of extra-judicial violence, regime assaults on freedom of expression and the forcible return of political refugees such and the Uighurs and montagnards back to China and Vietnam respectively. Hun Sen’s second failing has been an inability to institutionalize the political process in government institutions and a multi-party political system. Instead, Hun Sen has created a patronage network centred on himself, his family, and network of supporters. Like Indonesia’s Suharto Hun Sen’s legacy could well be political instability.

3. It’s common to paint Hun Sen as an authoritarian dictator, but besides certain explosions of force against enemies (i.e. July 5-6, 1997, January 3-4, 2013, more recently) on a day-to-day level his regime in fact tends to allow many political freedoms. His thirty years in power also seem to be a paradox in that it has been characterized by growing political freedoms in Cambodia, but  ambodia has also seen Hun Sen maintain an iron grip on his own power. How would you explain this paradox?

ANSWER: Hun Sen has been forced to work within a political system fashioned largely during the UNTAC period which gave rise to a multi-party system, a nominal democratic electoral system, a relatively free press and media, and a vibrant civil society, including human rights advocacy groups. Since Cambodia is so heavily dependent on foreign development assistance Hun Sen has had to calibrate his use of coercion and force so as not to lose international support entirely. Thus Hun Sen violently repressed FUNCINPEC as he did in July 1997 and then forged a coalition government with FUNCINPEC following the 1998 elections.

4. For many observers, the political landscape has been changed irrevocably in Cambodia since the July 2013 election. For the first time there is an organized opposition that appears committed to his ouster and (at least for now) resistant to his old strategies of buying or scaring off opponents. Do you think Hun Sen is capable of negotiating this new environment, or might his grip on power be loosening after thirty years as prime minister?

ANSWER: The lessons of Indonesia’s New Order are instructive. If Suharto had stepped down one election earlier, he would have gone down as the father of Indonesian development and a wise political leader. He stayed for one election too many and his closest supporters ushered him out of office. Hun Sen potentially faces a similar fate. He once declared he would stay in office until he was 74. The elections of July 2013 indicated that popular sentiment is turning against him. Years of relative political stability, economic growth, and the emergence of a technology-savvy younger generation are undermining the basis of Hun Sen’s nepotistic patronage network. If Hun Sen resorts to electoral manipulation and/or the use of coercion to remain in power he will likely provoke a strong political backlash. At the present Hun Sen appears set for at least another five years in office. But each election, communal or national, will be an inflection point for Cambodia’s future. Hun Sen may be the world’s longest-serving prime minister but at 63 he is no longer the youngest.

Any other thoughts you have on Hun Sen’s 30 years would be most welcome too.

ANSWER: The time is now ripe for Hun Sen, who by all accounts is a very intelligent man, to consider how to manage his transition from power with dignity. Hun Sen must begin to look beyond just keeping himself and family members in power. Hun Sen should begin focusing on his legacy and Cambodia’s future. Members of the CPP might borrow a leaf from Singapore’s political game book and create a new role for Hun Sen either as Senior Minister or Minister Mentor. The Opposition should also look beyond their desire to bring Hun Sen down and consider how to manage a political transition that gracefully ushers Hun Sen out of office with dignity and at the same time provides security for Hun Sen and his extended family.

(Article reprinted with the permission of the author Carlyle A. Thayer, Emeritus Professor,The University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra email: Carlthayer@webone.com.au)

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