In Cambodia, a King by Another Name
The Wall Street Journal: Asia
By Chun Han Wong

PHNOM PENH — Ahead of Monday’s cremation of Norodom Sihanouk, Cambodians are expected to flood the streets this weekend to mourn their two-time king. But many Cambodians say the former monarch’s death last year only underscores that control of this Southeast Asian nation lies elsewhere—with its longtime prime minister, Hun Sen.

“The king has some power,” Seourn Sok, a 25-year-old construction worker in Phnom Penh, said of the ex-monarch, who gave up his throne to his son Sihamoni in 2004 and died in October at the age of 89. “But far less than Hun Sen.”

Only 60 years old, Mr. Hun Sen already ranks among the world’s longest-serving leaders. Since taking office in 1985, he has become known by rivals and supporters alike as a Machiavellian operator who presided over Cambodia’s recovery from civil war and genocide but who also quashed dissent and outmaneuvered opponents. He has done so, rights groups say, using cronyism, violence and intimidation.

“Hun Sen’s leadership is very much a one-man show, and he decides on almost everything,” said Lao Mong Hay, a Cambodian academic and political analyst. “His administration is like a cluster of fiefdoms” run by his cronies, Mr. Mong Hay said.

Mr. Hun Sen didn’t respond to requests for an interview.

The prime minister and his Cambodian People’s Party are the only power that most of Cambodia’s 14.5 million people have known. Along city streets and rural lanes, his portrait is splashed on royal blue billboards. Mr. Hun Sen appears almost certain to receive another five-year mandate in a national election set for July: The CPP handily won senate and local elections last year, while a late-2011 poll by the U.S. government-funded International Republican Institute found that 81% of 2,000 Cambodians surveyed felt the country was on the right path.

Mr. Hun Sen’s political dominance is welcomed by many local tycoons and even some foreign investors who credit him for restoring stability and enabling economic growth that has ranked among Asia’s fastest in the past decade.

“What there has been over the years is tremendous continuity in the government. In a place like Cambodia, it’s probably a good thing to have that stability,” particularly because state institutions are weak, said Brett Sciaroni, a Phnom Penh-based American lawyer who advises Mr. Hun Sen’s government on business and investment issues.

Cambodia ranks among the world’s least-developed countries, with about 30% of the population living below the poverty line and international aid providing roughly half of the annual budget.

Development has been marred by allegations of abuse of power. In a November report, Human Rights Watch blamed Mr. Hun Sen and his supporters for more than 300 politically motivated killings since 1991, when a United Nations-brokered agreement ended a civil war. The rights group also accused the government of manipulating the judiciary and police.

Activists and Western aid donors accuse the government of neglecting development goals and pursuing environmentally destructive policies, such as granting concessions to local and foreign companies seeking timber, cash-crop and mineral resources.

Mr. Hun Sen has dismissed such claims. He defended his rights record during a meeting with President Barack Obama in Phnom Penh last year, saying Cambodia has unique circumstances that drive domestic policies, according to the White House.

The son of peasants, Mr. Hun Sen joined the Khmer Rouge in 1970 and lost an eye while fighting Cambodia’s then pro-U.S. government. He defected to Vietnam in 1977 to escape internal Khmer Rouge purges, returning two years later as part of a Vietnamese invasion that toppled Pol Pot’s genocidal regime. Mr. Hun Sen served as foreign minister in the new Hanoi-backed government before becoming premier.

Mr. Hun Sen faced few serious challengers until U.N.-backed elections in 1993 forced his CPP, which placed second, into a coalition with a royalist party. Mr. Hun Sen wrested full power four years later in a brief but bloody skirmish. The CPP won the next three elections—most recently in 2008, when it took 90 seats in the 123-member legislature.

The formerly Communist CPP boasts branches across Cambodia’s vast rural districts and in urban centers. The party appears to have handily outspent the opposition on campaigns, and it enjoys the support of tycoon-controlled broadcasters whose stations dominate the country’s television and radio waves. One broadcaster is headed by Hun Mana, a daughter of the prime minister.

In recent years, China’s generous support for the government—mainly through aid loans and infrastructural investment—has also bolstered the ruling CPP’s development agenda.

A chess player and a heavy smoker, Mr. Hun Sen has said he plans to rule until he is 90. Many Cambodians think he will eventually try to hand power to his children. Eldest son Hun Manet, 35, is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point—which admits some international cadets—with an economics doctorate from the University of Bristol. Mr. Hun Manet heads the Cambodian military’s counterterrorism arm and is deputy chief of his father’s personal bodyguard unit.

Still, Mr. Hun Sen’s challengers remain hopeful. Rural discontent has grown over alleged land grabs by private corporations. With steady economic growth producing an increasingly urban and better-educated population, the electorate could demand greater accountability and transparency.

Opposition leader Sam Rainsy, a former finance minister, led a merger of the country’s two main opposition groups last year to form the Cambodia National Rescue Party. Mr. Rainsy is exiled in Paris due to what he and rights observers have called a politically motivated conviction in 2010 for spreading disinformation and falsifying the Cambodia-Vietnam border on a map. Mr. Rainsy said in an interview that the opposition enjoys “strong popular support.”

But analysts aren’t convinced the French-educated former fund manager can win sufficient backing from Cambodia’s rural poor. In the 2008 parliamentary election, the Sam Rainsy Party received 21.9% of valid ballots while the Human Rights Party took 6.6%, combining for just 29 seats.

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