When Hun Sen came to power, the world was a very different place.
In the same week he was promoted to prime minister, former United States President Ronald Reagan was sworn into office for his second term. The Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall were still intact, the world wide web was years away from invention and the Kingdom was far from shaking off the aftershocks of the murderous Khmer Rouge regime.
Since his premiership began on January 14, 1985, Hun Sen has outlasted five US presidents and four Chinese, and seen the toppling of dozens of strongmen around the world. He has served as prime minister longer than anyone bar Bahrain’ s Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, who has lost many of his powers, and according to our ranking (left), Hun Sen is the third longest-serving elected head of government in power today – however dubious the credibility of those countries’ elections may have been, and the non-democratic means by which many of those leaders rose to the top.
In the context of South, East and Southeast Asia, the length of his premiership is particularly striking. Brunei’s Hassanal Bolkiah has ruled as sultan for a whopping 50 years, but the closest any elected politician comes behind Hun Sen is Singapore’s Lee Hsien Loong, who has been prime minister for 13 years, and Malaysia’s Najib Razak, prime minister for eight.
While leadership has changed hands more frequently elsewhere in the region than in Cambodia, democracy remains elusive throughout. The Supreme Leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, is not expected to leave power anytime soon. Many have questioned the commitment to democracy-building of Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, who took over in a military coup in 2014. And Chinese President Xi Jinping has purged officials and enacted reforms to give him more power than any Communist Party leader since Mao Zedong.
Elections in the region can often leave much to be desired in terms of fairness. But it is only Hun Sen who for such a span has used political machinations – as well as the ballot box – to ensure his staying power.
In September last year, shortly after the arrest of Kem Sokha, the leader of Cambodia’s only viable opposition party, and two months before a court ruling to dissolve that same party, Hun Sen said he planned to stay in office for another decade. While some have speculated about his health, few seem to doubt he can make good on that promise.
Graphic and words: Jenni Reid