Hun Sen’s Cambodia

HSCHun Sen’s Cambodia, by Sebastian Strangio (blog here), published by Yale University Press and Silkworm Books, will be available at Monument Books from 27 October. It’s an evocation and explanation of contemporary Cambodia, a country synonymous with its leader, Hun Sen.

The first half traces the history of the country from the end of the Khmer Rouge regime to the present; the second half investigates at the reality of life in and under what the author calls “the mirage on the Mekong.” Presiding over all is strongman-President Hun Sen, who has dominated the last three decades as Sihanouk dominated an earlier age.

Hun Sen was born into a comparatively well—off peasant family, the son of a former monk who left the Sangha to join the anti-French resistance, but the family lost their money and he was forced to become a temple-boy in Phnom Penh. This remains a very common pattern today, so common in fact that it makes me wonder which of my local temples might be sheltering Cambodia’s future leadership at this moment.

Hun-Sen-e1349252427677The young Hun Sen, early 1980s

  Exactly how the young Hun Sen became a communist – if indeed he ever did embrace the cause in any meaningful way – remains extremely murky. Sihanouk’s call for all patriotic Cambodians to join the anti-Lon Nol maquis following his overthrow in 1970 seems to been the catalyst, although nothing is certain. It’s clear, however, that he was a young man of great ability, rising to become a KR commander in the Eastern Zone before the Party’s collapse into self-destructive purges forced him to flee to Vietnam in 1997.

470_ap_hun_sen_091008Hun Sen now (AP photo)

In January 1979, aged just 26, he returned Cambodia’s new Foreign Minister. He impressed visitors with his intelligence, hard work, and uncanny ability to sail with the changing political winds. These abilities, and possibly a certain ruthlessness, enabled him to see off his decidedly less talented colleagues; by 1985 he was Prime Minister, a position he’s held ever since. (Strangio gives a fascinating account of how Pen Sovan, the first post-KR prime minister, tried to resist Vietnamese direction and ended up in a cell in Hanoi; Hun Sen in contrast made himself indispensable).


Cambodia in the mid-1980s was a tangle of patronage networks – the Khmer word is “strings”, conjuring up the not inappropriate image of a bowl of spaghetti. No one was better suited than Hun Sen to bring order to the chaos.

Patronage is deeply rooted in Cambodian culture, and always has been. Gifts are passed down and generate loyalty which then confirms the authority of the giver. The system is, of course, deeply destructive. “Government posts [are] valued according to their potential to generate income, while the power of higher officials depend[s] on their ability to distribute those positions.” The task of making himself the ultimate source of all influence and power was to occupy Hun Sen for the rest of his career, and still continues.

Cambodia Rolls RoyceRolls Royce dealership, Phnom Penh

Modern Cambodia has unquestionably benefitted from Hun Sen’s subtle approach to the age-old role of patronage boss. The country has an open market, a democratic constitution, and a vibrant civil society. Guns have just about disappeared off the streets (the average Cambodian runs a far lesser risk of being shot than does the average American), the press is freer than in many other countries in the region, foreign investment is booming, and the tourism and garment industries are diversifying employment opportunities.

cam-photo-front5Striking garment workers (photo by John Vink, Magnum)

If only the reality were so bright and shiny. Strangio gives Hun Sen his due – in 2004 one in two Cambodian’s lived in poverty, by 2011 the figure had dropped to one in five and falling – but as he makes clear, the commitment to Western ideas of the liberal society is both limited and pragmatic. Partly this is because Hun Sen has seen that the West’s talk of the virtues of freedom is hypocritical – these were the countries that kept Pol Pot in the United Nations and isolated Cambodia through the 1980s for their own cynical purposes. And partly, of course, they can’t afford to hand over the keys to the patronage machine.

power-to-the-peopleForcible eviction at Borei  Keila (Asiapundits)

And so it continues: land seizures in the provinces, “slum” clearances in the capital, unionists and other opponents shot dead or jailed, media taken over and controlled by those the elite can trust, a compliant judiciary, etc etc. Even the CNRP opposition offers no more than a change of faces, and Sam Rainsy’s racist Khmer chauvinism hardly seems like something to long for. Strangio’s book makes depressing reading.

Cambodian National Rescue Party2013 election (

And yet, for all this, he ends on a note of hope. Cambodia has not stood still for the last thirty years. A new generation has grown up, one more educated, more exposed to outside values, less willing to accept patronage politics and a society of inequality. The results were seen in the 2013 elections, when the CPP lost a massive number of seats, obviously to its own surprise. Cambodia is changing, but Hun Sen is not. We live in interesting times.