Wed, Jul 30, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Cambodia's strongman stays ahead

RUTHLESS Former Khmer Rouge commander Hun Sen has been able to leave his past behind him to emerge as one of Asia's canniest and most durable leaders

AP , PHNOM PENH

Victorious again at the polls, Prime Minister Hun Sen has cemented his reputation as one of Asia's canniest leaders -- a political chameleon with a ruthless streak.

Born the son of peasants, Hun Sen was educated by Buddhist monks. When civil war broke out he fought with the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia's killing fields, but then defected and took power with the help of invading forces from neighboring Vietnam.

As democracy emerged, he dropped his communist ideology and reshaped his image as a nationalist and strongman.

Whether by the ballot or the bullet, Hun Sen has been at the center of Cambodia's political scene since 1985 when he became the world's youngest prime minister at age 33. He has held or shared the top job ever since.

Yesterday, Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party said it expects to control about 73 of the 123 seats in the new National Assembly following weekend elections.

Time and again, he has shown his mettle in overcoming challenges and adversaries, beginning with a US-led diplomatic boycott that isolated his poverty-stricken country during the 1980s.

Among those he has bullied, outfoxed or outgunned include his one-time co-prime minister Norodom Ranariddh, the Khmer Rouge and the UN. Some say he plays the game of politics better than those who set the rules. It's not surprising he loves chess.

Critics accuse Hun Sen of failing to address such problems as endemic corruption and providing tacit immunity for lawbreakers with official ties. But even his critics agree that he is intelligent and hardworking, in a country's whose politicians are generally noted for indolence.

When his grip on power was less firm, political opponents feared for their lives. Opposition leader Sam Rainsy once described him as a "murderer."

Influential US Senator Mitch McConnell called him "nothing less than a paranoid evil dictator."

"His tough talk is unimpressive and only underscores his complicity in the numerous and violent episodes of Cambodia's more recent past," he said.

At the same time, Hun Sen has rallied the grassroots support of the farmers who make up the vast majority of the country 12.8 million people. Cambodia's rural landscape is dotted with schools, temples and roads upon which he has bestowed his patronage.

"I want to develop my country like the other Southeast Asian strongmen did," he told his biographers. More than one-third of Cambodians live on less than US$1 per day.

Born on April 4, 1951 to a peasant family in Kampong Cham Province, 80km east of Phnom Penh, Hun Sen as a boy worked the rice fields before being sent to the capital to be educated by Buddhist monks.

But when he was 19, Hun Sen responded to a call to arms from King Norodom Sihanouk, then a prince in exile in Beijing after being ousted in a 1970 US-backed coup.

Hun Sen joined the sole organized opposition to the coup-makers, the previously marginal communist Khmer Rouge, who had allied themselves with the ousted Sihanouk. He would lose his left eye in the bitter civil war.

The prince and the peasant boy had little idea that when the Khmer Rouge would take over five years later, they would launch a revolutionary reign of terror that would claim the lives of 1.7 million of their countrymen.

Though he attained the rank of regimental commander, there is no reason to believe Hun Sen played a part in Khmer Rouge atrocities, according to historians. His June 1977 escape to neighboring Vietnam made him one of the earliest high-ranking guerrilla defectors.

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