from Asia Unbound

Hun Sen’s Cambodia: A Review

October 31, 2014

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Although the Vietnam War, including the “sideshow” war in Cambodia, has been the subject of thousands of books, post-war Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos have gotten relatively little treatment from Western writers. This despite the fact that Cambodia suffered one of the worst genocides in history, Vietnam fought another war in 1979 against China and then remade itself into a strategic and economic power, and Laos remains one of the most authoritarian states in the world.

There have been a tiny handful of quality books on post-1975 Cambodia, such as Elizabeth Becker’s When the War Was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge Revolution, and David Chandler’s A History of Cambodia. Even fewer have analyzed Cambodia in the 2000s and 2010s. Other books, like Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land by former New York Times journalist Joel Brinkley, had some fine attributes but tended to succumb too easily to glib generalizations about Cambodians and about Cambodian political culture. Still other books on Cambodia were overly academic accounts of Cambodia in the present that were almost impossible for policymakers and the general public to understand.

Now, a new book by Cambodia-based journalist Sebastian Strangio, Hun Sen’s Cambodia, has set the standard for compelling and accessible histories of modern-day Cambodia. In particular, the book is the first to offer an accessible but thorough biographical portrait of longtime Cambodian prime minister—and strongman—Hun Sen. Strangio details in compelling form how Hun Sen rose from a skinny, totally uneducated and unworldly senior official in the Vietnam-installed post-Khmer Rouge regime into a smooth autocrat who has dominated the country for decades. Over time, Hun Sen also has become fabulously rich and has become an increasingly powerful player in Southeast Asia, due to Cambodia’s membership in ASEAN, Hun Sen’s longevity, and Hun Sen’s ability to play his patrons Vietnam and China off of each other.

Strangio delves into Hun Sen’s early life and his time serving the Khmer Rouge, before he defected and joined the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia. Strangio also clearly reveals how many of Hun Sen’s closest associates in the Cambodian government almost surely committed atrocities during their time in the Khmer Rouge, before they defected.

Most important, Strangio’s portrait of Cambodia reveals how Hun Sen has been able to dominate the country for so long. (Indeed, Hun Sen now is the longest-serving non-royal leader in East Asia and the seventh-longest-serving non-royal leader in the world.) By January 2015, Hun Sen will have been in power for thirty years, and will have been the only leader most Cambodians have known, since the country is extremely young, a result of the massacres of the late 1970s. Strangio lucidly shows how Cambodia’s other political leaders allowed themselves to be bought, controlled, or otherwise co-opted by Hun Sen, and how the devastated country never built the political institutions that could stop the strongman from gaining power. He reveals how, at least for a time, Hun Sen’s version of iron-fisted stability and growth—albeit growth with high inequality—also truly made the strongman popular with the public. Strangio shows how Hun Sen alone, among Cambodia’s major political figures, understood how to build a nationwide party organization and how to appeal to the rural population, in much the same way former King Sihanouk appealed to the Cambodian poor. Indeed, Sihanouk, in Strangio’s telling, wished that Hun Sen had actually been his son, since Hun Sen possessed the popular touch and political acumen that Sihanouk’s actual sons did not.

Strangio also offers a devastating indictment of the foreign donors who financed UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), the early 1990s UN-led aid and peacekeeping operation in Cambodia, following the end of Cambodia’s civil war. The same donors continue to pour money into the country today, even as Cambodia’s political culture remains corrupt, Hun Sen’s government is utterly destroying the country’s environment, and growth has enriched only a tiny coterie of elites, mostly in Phnom Penh. Yet even though foreign donors for years enjoyed great power over the Cambodian government, they rarely tried to use that power to really push Hun Sen’s government to change, and Hun Sen was savvy enough to allow a thin veneer of political freedom and civil society. This veneer was enough to allow donors to claim that the country was always becoming more open and more democratic, though this was always a falsehood. In reality, though Cambodia retains a degree of independent civil society, trade unionists, journalists, and activists of all sorts are routinely arrested, beaten, or summarily executed in Cambodia. What’s more, now that Hun Sen has cultivated China, which has become the biggest donor in Cambodia, the group of donors—mostly Western nations and Japan—who for years financed much of the Cambodian budget have less influence over Phnom Penh anyway.

Strangio’s book has some flaws. Unlike Brinkley’s book, which had both sizable strengths and deep weaknesses, Strangio does not get the chance to put the pressing questions about Hun Sen’s rule to Hun Sen’s inner circle itself, other than a few of Hun Sen’s business allies. He is not able to confront the most corrupt in Hun Sen’s circle with their graft, to ask the prime minister’s closest aides the hard questions about how Hun Sen has dominated Cambodian political culture and institutions. Brinkley somehow was able to get face-to-face with Hun Sen’s closest circle and put these questions to them, and often get surprising answers. Strangio instead mostly relies on his own analysis, on interviews with a few Hun Sen allies, on many field reporting trips that examine the impact of Hun Sen’s rapacious economic and political strategies, and on outside analysts to show the impact of Hun Sen’s rule. Overall, Strangio’s approach is far more nuanced and thorough; but, I would have liked to see some of Hun Sen’s senior-most aides—or the prime minister himself—squirm in front of the tough questions they never face from the Cambodian media.

Finally, though Strangio worked on the book for years, compiling what appear to be mountains of research, the book seems to have been finished before the shocking Cambodian national elections of 2013, in which the opposition almost defeated Hun Sen’s party despite state media showing only Hun Sen and Hun Sen’s party engaging in all sorts of pre-election intimidation of the opposition. According to many election observers, if not for widespread fraud by Hun Sen’s party during and immediately after election day, the opposition coalition would have won a majority in Parliament in 2013.

Even so, the 2013 election results showed that, after decades of Hun Sen’s dominance, Cambodia finally might be on the verge of change; Hun Sen’s control of the media had been undermined by the Internet and social media, while opposition politicians who once just squabbled with each other worked together this time and ran a successful campaign. Strangio inserts a kind of postscript on the 2013 elections and its aftermath, which included months of negotiation between the opposition and Hun Sen’s party about the election results and about control of Parliament. Still, the postscript is not enough to capture the 2013 elections thoroughly and to analyze what they might mean for Hun Sen’s long rule and for Cambodia’s future.

Overall, this is the finest book on Hun Sen and modern-day Cambodia that has been released thus far.