Prime Minister Hun Sen marked 33 years in power yesterday, claiming he had maintained his tight grip on power through democratic, not dictatorial, means – while also lamenting that he was unable to step down due to the Kingdom’s needs.
On January 14, 1985, Hun Sen was voted into power by his party members after the first prime minister of the Vietnam-backed Cambodian government, Pen Sovann, fell out of favour with Hanoi and his successor, Chan Si, passed away.
At a gathering of 5,000 tuk-tuk drivers and motodops, the premier yesterday prided himself on ruling the country by securing unanimous party votes in 1985 and through elections, not through violence – an apparently selective reading of history.
“We have lived for 33 years not from the barrel of a gun and not under a dictatorship,” Hun Sen said.
The “real dictators”, he said, were the Khmer Rouge’s Pol Pot and US-backed former Prime Minister Lon Nol, who nonetheless could not sustain power for as long as he had.
“I have no ambition to become prime minister. The person who wants to retire cannot because the country requires him,” Hun Sen added.
Last September, the premier pledged in a speech to remain in power for another decade.
But Hun Sen, in his speech, glossed over perhaps the most pivotal moment of his long rule. In 1997, his forces took up arms and carried out a bloody campaign to oust the royalist Funcinpec party – the winner of the 1993 elections – and its leader, then-“First Prime Minister” Prince Norodom Ranariddh. Dozens of Funcinpec military officials were murdered in extrajudicial executions in the aftermath of the fighting.
Threats of violence have surfaced more recently as well, including in May when Hun Sen said he was willing to “eliminate 100 to 200 people” to preserve stability if faced with the possibility of regime change.
The premier has in recent years steered away from overt violence in favour of softer sleights of hand, including rewriting laws in order to squeeze out his political opponents. His Cambodian People’s Party rammed through a number of legal amendments hobbling the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, and in September, he had party leader Kem Sokha arrested – a move that drew widespread condemnation as undermining any pretence of democracy. The party was later dissolved over accusations it was fomenting a foreign-backed “revolution”.
Hing Soksan, former director of the youth wing of the CNRP, said Hun Sen’s vice-like grip on the premiership was “done by tricks, oppression, fraud and deception”.
“The chance [for leadership] is not offered to the youths in the next generation,” he said.
While Soksan acknowledged certain achievements under Hun Sen’s rule – such as infrastructure development in Phnom Penh, and Cambodia’s transformation from a “war-torn country to a peaceful one” – he said the Kingdom’s resources had been decimated and its people abused in the process, adding that the premier had “no ability” to develop the country further.
“We can see that when he leads for 30 years, he has ability to lead his family and affiliates to become rich, while millions of people remain living in hunger . . . and their rights have been violated and restricted,” he said.
Cambodian People’s Party spokesman Sok Eysan, however, deflected criticisms while praising the premier for “huge victories” – chief among them the oft-repeated mantra of “peace and development” and the “win-win” strategy to reintegrate Khmer Rouge soldiers into the government in the late 1990s.
“This [criticism] is just the analysis and unilateral opinion of an individual; the truth of history will not be able to fade away,” he said.
But social analyst Meas Nee warned that when leaders remained in charge for too long, it becomes easier for them to abuse their power.
“I feel he has done some incredible things for Cambodia, but I think 33 years is too long – he should figure out how to transfer the leadership,” Nee said. “When any leader stays too long, power becomes centralised between themselves and their family . . . [to the point where they] hold the country both politically and economically.”
He added the recent crackdown on the opposition and dissenting voices had put Cambodia on an international watch list. With the opposition dissolved, some media outlets closed and the constant warnings of “colour revolution” justifying repression, it was doubtful Cambodia was on the “right track”.
“Many people think it is not yet a total dictatorship, but it might not be far away. He declares he’s not a dictator, but more and more people think it’s moving to dictatorship,” Nee added.
Human Rights Watch’s Phil Robertson yesterday said Hun Sen’s “determination to hold on to power has been both relentless and ruthless”, while not shying away from “intimidation and violence against anyone he thinks poses a threat to his power”.
“Hun Sen hides his dictatorial ways behind a fig leaf of elections which he subverts,” he said in an email. “Any real threat to continued CPP dominance of the polls is done away with quietly and expeditiously so that it appears that Hun Sen is unassailable.”