A Tiger Rules the Mountain

The world's longest serving Prime Minister and Cambodia's pursuit of democracy

Will Hun Sen be remembered like King Sihanouk?

I was recently grilled by Sebastian Strangio of The Diplomat about Cambodia’s future under its new prime minister and what Hun Sen’s legacy would be. The first question, though, was how Hun Sen managed to hold power for so long.

Without spoiling it for those who haven’t read it, A Tiger Rules the Mountain reveals how Hun Sen managed to regain complete control of Cambodia following the surge of opposition to him in 2013. One reader called it “an anatomy of an authoritarian state”, and I tried to show how Hun Sen does not control all single-handedly but through various organs of the state.

Hun Sen’s Cambodia

There is no denying Hun Sen’s personal influence though, which is why the aforementioned Sebastian Strangio wrote a remarkable account of Hun Sen’s domination called Hun Sen’s Cambodia (2nd edition was titled Cambodia: From Pol Pot to Hun Sen and Beyond). Western commentators often criticise Hun Sen, calling him a thug or a strongman, but you don’t stay in power for 38 years without being extremely smart. He’s avoided international intervention, controlled the key levers of power domestically, and, crucially, balanced competing interests within his own party.

The recent transition is a perfect example of how he manages to keep all of the major players in the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) content. His son, Hun Manet, is taking the top job but the sons or daughters of all the other major players are also getting key roles. The outgoing defense minister has been replaced by his son, as has the outgoing interior minister. The daughter of the former industry minister is now the commerce minister and the son of the outgoing Senate president has become land management minister.

Hun Sen and King Sihanouk

My favourite question of Strangio’s was his last one when he asked me how Hun Sen’s era would be remembered. It’s something I thought about when writing Tiger and thought about including a chapter or two that would explore this but decided it would take the focus back to Hun Sen rather than the people of Cambodia.

I was living in Cambodia when former King Sihanouk died and witnessed the overwhelming grief at his funeral. They revered him for winning independence from France, ushering in a golden era of progress in the 1960s, and helping to end the civil war of the 1980s. There were a few Cambodians I knew, however, who did not grieve. They remembered the violence that Sihanouk used against his own people to crush opposition and dissent, and I often wondered whether Hun Sen would be remembered by Cambodians for defeating the Khmer Rouge, developing the economy and moderning Cambodia, or for his brutality and authoritarianism.

In my response, I recalled talking about this with a Cambodian friend, who shook his head, smiling at me, when I asked if Hun Sen would be loved like King Sihanouk. I guess time will tell, and maybe that is another book to write.

The future

There are differences in style and approach between Strangio’s Hun Sen’s Cambodia and A Tiger Rules the Mountain but they are a perfect pair, with Tiger following on from where Hun Sen’s Cambodia stops. The next book about Cambodia will doubtless be about the new prime minister, Hun Manet, who Strangio also asked me about.

His story is one for others to write, but I think there is cultural arrogance in hopes that Manet must be a democrat because he is intelligent and was educated in the West. He may find the ties of his family and culture are stronger.

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