Former Khmer Rouge guerrilla turned premier Hun Sen has dominated the Cambodian political scene for 28 years, accused by critics of riding roughshod over his opponents and ignoring human rights.
The 60-year-old prime minister has vowed to rule until he is 74, and has already been on top so long that many Cambodians fear the country will collapse if he is suddenly removed.
He is now building a political dynasty: His three US-educated sons have been handed top party and army positions and the youngest, Hun Many, yesterday ran in parliamentary elections.
Voters appear unlikely to end his nearly three-decade rule, with his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) expected to secure another victory.
Hun Sen’s confidence in his formidable party machine is so complete that he has taken the unusual tactic of not personally campaigning for his re-election.
And yet his presence is felt everywhere. Outside of campaign season, Hun Sen appears in public almost every day. He is flown throughout the countryside in his helicopter to give televised speeches at the openings of pagodas, schools and bridges. The message: Hun Sen brought you this.
To rural villagers, Hun Sen is also the Cambodian everyman. His sharp, populist wit and humble upbringing make him one of their own. He often veers from prepared remarks, launching into coarsely worded rants against phantom coups, arrogant foreigners or international demands for reform.
Born the third of six children to peasant farmers in central Cambodia, Hun Sen moved to Phnom Penh at age 12 to attend school. When Cambodia fell into civil war in 1970, Hun Sen became a foot soldier for what later emerged as the Khmer Rouge.
Hun Sen says he opposed the Khmer Rouge as early as 1975, but he remained with the movement, losing an eye in the fighting and rising to the rank of deputy regional commander.
He married field nurse Bun Rany in a mass ceremony in 1976, leaving her behind when he fled a year later to Vietnam as the regime that killed up to 2 million people was consumed by its own paranoia, purging thousands.
Hun Sen returned in 1978 with other Cambodian defectors and Vietnamese troops who pushed the Khmer Rouge into the country’s far northwest, where fighting lasted for another two decades.
His “experience liberating Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge” is a key part of his enduring appeal to voters scarred by their country’s bloody past, independent political analyst Chea Vannath said.
Hun Sen quickly rose to the top of the Hanoi-installed government of the 1980s, becoming the world’s youngest prime minister in 1985 at the age of 32.
As his country emerged from conflict, he abandoned the communist dogma of his Vietnamese patrons, embracing the free market and seeking out alliances with more powerful nations.
Hun Sen’s administration is mired in corruption and he is frequently the target of criticism that he tramples basic rights to keep his grip on power. Rising discontent over forced evictions and growing inequality have led to a surge in support for the newly unified opposition, as young, urban voters abandon the CPP.
“The problem is, Hun Sen has stayed the same. The voters are changing,” Vannath said. “The peak of his career is past.”
After losing the country’s first elections in 1993, Hun Sen managed to strike a UN-backed power-sharing deal with the royalists, whom he later ousted in a bloody coup in 1997. Hundreds of people were killed in the run-up to elections the following year. Protests against Hun Sen’s victory were put down violently. The last election in 2008 passed largely peacefully.