On 16 November 2017, Cambodia suffered a “terminal blow to democracy,” when the nation’s Supreme Court officially dissolved the Cambodian National Rescue Party (គណបក្សសង្គ្រោះជាតិ/CNRP), the principal political rival of Hun Sen (ហ៊ុន សែន, 1952-) and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (គណបក្សប្រជាជនកម្ពុជា/CPP).1 Advocates for the CNRP’s dissolution accused the party led by Kem Sokha (កឹម សុខា, 1953-) and Sam Rainsy (សម រង្ស៊ី, 1949-) of plotting to overthrow Hun Sen. The dissolution dictated a five-year ban on over one hundred CNRP members, and the subsequent CPP electoral sweep in a 2018 non-competitive election further cemented Hun Sen’s autocracy. The 1991 promise of free elections in a democratic country long dead, Hun Sen has maintained a hold on political power despite his questionable past. His patronage networks are stronger than ever, and his cult of personality is visible in the thousands of schools (largely funded by his elite loyalists) that bear his name. He is omnipresent in Khmer media and often delivers long, bellicose speeches in which he attacks his political rivals. Hun Sen’s political longevity is due in no small part to his alternate appeasing of national elites, who wish to benefit as much as possible from a rapidly changing Cambodia, and of common folk, who regard him as one of their own.2
A one-time Communist Party of Kampuchea (បក្សកុម្មុយនីស្តកម្ពុជា/CPK; “Khmer Rouge”) Battalion Commander, Hun Sen steadily rose to power by consolidating the CPP around him. In the years since his consolidation of political leadership in 1985, the CPP and its forerunner organization, the Kampuchean People’s Revolutionary Party (គណបក្សប្រ ជាជនបដិវត្តន៍កម្ពុជា, KPRP), have maintained a firm grip on Cambodian politics, either alone or via imbalanced coalitions. They have overseen Cambodia’s transition from a Maoist Party-state (1975-1979) to a Hanoi-backed state (1979-1989) to the “liberal democratic” Kingdom of Cambodia (1993-present). Through it all Hun Sen, has transformed a fledgling democracy into what Stephen Heder describes as a “substantively empty shell” that, through political patronage to friendly elites, systemic yet functional corruption, and oft-violent autocratic subjugation of dissent, has transformed Cambodia into Hun’s own personal fiefdom while establishing his family as a political dynasty.3
How did Hun Sen accomplish this autocratic coup de grace to democracy and how does he now maintain power and support? One explanation is undoubtedly that Hun Sen and his CPP promote their government as the masterful engineers of Cambodia’s rapid socioeconomic reconfiguration structured around amassing wealth in a few elite-centric sectors, while pretending that intensifying poverty in all other sectors is simply the cost of doing business. In post-independence Cambodian political culture, the ways in which Hun Sen marshals personal charisma in addition to his performative and effective combination of the so-called three “claims of qualification to rule” play well. These claims are: possessing royal lineage and/or authority; holding technical expertise acquired through education; and having past experience as a participant in armed struggle.4 A fourth “claim,” that runs across all post-independence Cambodian heads of state, is charismatic prestige (from the Buddhist term Pāramitā, which describes enlightened beings).
Autocracy in Cambodian Political Culture
Hun Sen’s autocracy is not unprecedented in Cambodian political history. In fact, it has drawn on semiotics, allusions, narratives, and lessons from rulers past and present to appeal to tradition-minded agricultural workers, profit-driven urbanites, and those staunchest of Cambodian nationalists who regard his strong and consistent leadership as the personal embodiment of Cambodian prosperity.
In the modern era, arguably the most important of the characteristics of a powerful ruler was the quality of charisma as a signal of one’s merits. In recent Cambodian history, no national ruler was more charismatic than Norodom Sihanouk (នរោត្តម សីហនុ, 1922-2012), the “King Father.” As head of state after 1953, Sihanouk enjoyed widespread popularity at home and abroad for ushering in Cambodian independence from France. Sihanouk received a classical French education at several prestigious colonial schools in Phnom Penh and Saigon. His articulateness, worldliness (as a frequent traveler, most famously to Maoist China in the 1950s and 1960s), anti-imperialism cum neutralism, and reputation for securing Cambodian independence in 1953 fulfilled all the claims of qualification to rule. His frequent appeals to Buddhism, most famously his advocacy for “Buddhist socialism,” positioned him as a righteous “one who has merits” and who governed in accordance with Buddhist teachings and, thus, could ensure Cambodia’s national security.His removal from power by Lon Nol on 18 March 1970 in a bloodless coup while Sihanouk was in China, “was envisioned,” as Ian Harris notes, “in cosmological terms,” as conservative Buddhists understood Sihanouk’s fall from power.5 The Lon Nol interregnum (Khmer Republic) and the CPK governed Cambodia from 1970 to 1975 and 1975 to 1979, respectively, with the same four claims of qualifications to rule as those used by Sihanouk and later, by Hun Sen.
For his part, by 1969 or 1970, Hun Sen was a card-carrying CPK member and Battalion Commander in Democratic Kampuchea’s Eastern Zone. As I explore in my book, The Emergence of Global Maoism, this was when the Party leadership and propagandists branded themselves as the “Organization,” the guarantor for future happiness.
The Rise of an Autocrat: From CPK Apparatchik to CPP Leader
Hun Sen was born Hun Bunnal in Peam Kaoh Sna commune, Kampong Cham Province, in southeastern Cambodia in 1952, shortly before Cambodia won its independence. He was born to a reasonably wealthy Sino-Khmer rice- and tobacco-farming family with lineage that traced back to Chaozhou, Guangdong Province, via his grandfather. At 13, Hun Bunnal studied as a monk in Phnom Penh at a Buddhist pagoda and enrolled in classes at Indradevi High School (វិទ្យាល័យឥន្ទ្រទេវី). In 1969, he left school and, after the Lon Nol coup, he joined the CPK movement to capture Phnom Penh.
A shroud of mystery surrounds Hun Sen’s CPK years. He changed his name to Hun Sen in 1970 and claims that he joined the movement upon hearing the now-deposed Sihanouk’s broadcast from Beijing for Cambodians to take up arms. By his own account, although he was a loyal CPK soldier by the time of the capture of Phnom Penh on 17 April 1975—he sustained several injuries, including to his eye, in the line of fire—he claims to have ignored CPK orders thereafter.6Whatever the case, in the CPK, Hun steadily rose from rank-and-file soldier to officer in the Special Forces regiment of Region 21, and then to Battalion Commander in Democratic Kampuchea’s Eastern Zone. Hun Sen formally quit the CPK in 1977 and, fearing that CPK purges of the Eastern Zone would target his Battalion, fled to neighboring Vietnam, where he assisted the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) in its plans to remove the CPK.
Hun Sen gradually gained the trust of his Vietnamese collaborators. He adopted a Vietnamese name (Hai Phúc) in “a gesture of solidarity” and provided crucial intelligence on CPK soldiers and military operations across the Kampuchea-Vietnam border. Hun’s Vietnamese handlers entrusted him with gathering fellow ex-CPK exiles and escapees to form a tactical fighting unit in 1978 that engaged with CPK forces during the Vietnamese counterattack, which toppled the Cambodian Communists in 1979. Then, Hun Sen stepped onto a new battlefield—politics.7
Because of his dubious past, any turn to politics required that Hun Sen re-invent himself, not as a Red Khmer, but as someone who was not a true believer in the Communist cause. Hun gradually repackaged himself as someone who played a vital role in the CPK’s removal from power and as the leader who, through personal example, would usher in a new era for Cambodia.
Autocrat Rising: Hun Sen as Prime Minister
Hun Sen proposed himself as one with technical expertise, and, in the context of Cambodia’s dismal economic situation after the CPK-era, this technocratic demeanor was of major importance to his political ascendance. In his capacity as PRK Prime Minister, from 1985 until 1989, and State of Cambodia Prime Minister, from 1989 to 1993, he consolidated political support from elite and rural sectors by encouraging Cambodia’s economic transformation. His aim was to end the era of “two markets and three prices” (state and free markets, prices for provisions, livelihood, and of the free market) and collective agricultural production to usher in a new era of “one market, one price,” with a system of individual property rights. Not all of his government’s designs panned out. The rural credit program was an abject disaster by 1988, as many rural families simply could not afford to repay their debts. More recently, Hun’s steadfast, almost blind commitment to transform Cambodia into a regional economic leader coincided with his unwillingness to curtail federal corruption and invest in the countryside rather than double-down on financial pledges to the Cambodian military.8Twenty years of “Hunsenomics” has not resolved the century-old problem of land ownership, and the CPP’s land program has left large swaths of rural Cambodia destitute, while a wealthy minority of Cambodians (around ten percent of the population) owns nearly sixty-six percent of the land.9
Hun Sen has withstood these storms unscathed through his deft deployment of political patronage and elite-centric politics. His combination of functional political corruption, grandiose promises, and at times outright xenophobia, are all features of his political arsenal to this day. Corruption and repression of his enemies notwithstanding, many Cambodians welcome the stability and security that Hun Sen’s CPP brought after the murderous turmoil of the PRK and CPK years. Hun Sen’s commitment to drawing in foreign investment in Cambodia also stimulated the emergence of a nouveau riche class of elites and made those few urbanite Cambodians who were already wealthy even more prosperous. This is a core of his support.
Not a Kingmaker, but a Maker-King: Hun Sen Re-Invents Hun Sen as Devarāja, 2016-Present
Hun Sen has enjoyed sweeping popularity, even despite the 1997 split between him and the royalists. In fact, in the 2008 elections, the CPP won convincingly for a third consecutive time in spite of credible allegations of corruption. How has Hun Sen held on to power despite widening inequality in the rural sector and with no royal connections? The answer lies in how he recasts his own narrative within the longer trajectory of charismatic rulership and political authority in Khmer history. There are two facets of Hun’s self-legitimation effort to establish and secure his own foundational dynasty. The first is his strategic invocation of an important legendary figure, Sdech Kan/Preah Srei Chettha II (ស្ដេចកន/ព្រះស្រីជេដ្ឋាទី២), a commoner who, in the early sixteenth century, usurped King Srey Sokonthor Bât, and thence came to embody the kingmaking myth of the nation. The second is Hun’s strategic use of royal symbolism to link himself to great rulers of the past and to connect his person to kingship even in the absence of royal lineage.10
Hun Sen has grafted his own life experiences and image onto the Sdech Kan narrative to redraw the lines between royal authority and his own. Sdech Kan was a charismatic man who rose to power through personal aptitude and just struggle against an unjust monarch. As Hun Sen describes in his version of the Sdech Kan story: “Sdech Kân or Preah Srey Chettha did wonderful work in what should be termed a democratic revolution, because he liberated all outcasts under his area of control. Because of this, he became the strongest commander and King in his own right.”11
Hun Sen, in his own mind, is a modern Sdech Kan, by virtue of his struggle against an unjust government, the CPK, and his expertise that has led Cambodia’s economic sector to grow, even if very unevenly. The narrative, importantly, also helps Hun Sen to shroud the all-important royal lineage “claim of qualification to rule” by inserting himself as the technocrat, the expert ruler, and the only man who could usher in an era of prosperity for Cambodia.
In addition, Hun Sen deploys “regal legitimations” to justify, at least rhetorically, his autocratic political turn and claim to authority, all while establishing his family as a political dynasty. His “regal references” elevate his person to the level of a Khmer king, a charismatic, august, and legitimate ruler whose autocratic turn is entirely justifiable to maintain peace and prosperity. Hun draws upon royal semiotics to cast himself as the people’s revolutionary: a politically and historically necessary person for Cambodia’s current moment.
A perfect example of this effort was on view during Hun Sen’s 2-3 December 2017 peace ceremony at Angkor Wat, which took place a mere two weeks after the CNRP had been dissolved. No members of the Cambodian royal family were present at the ceremony. The choice of location at Angkor Wat meant that this ceremony represented Hun Sen’s most brazen claim to the political lineage of ancient kingship. He also used this peace ceremony to wrest the title of “father of peace and reconciliation” away from Sihanouk. He thus drew upon “regal legitimations” to render his person inseparable from a heroic lineage of Khmer rulers and Cambodian peace and stability. His autocratic turn thus became justifiable in the name of royal continuity.
Regardless of whether the majority of Cambodians buy into his peddled narrative and historical revisionism, Hun’s ultimate plan to establish his own family dynasty to govern Cambodia appears to be working. His eldest son, apparently poised as successor-in-waiting, Hun Manet, is a ranking lieutenant-general in the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces and heads his father’s bodyguard corps. His daughter, Hun Mana, is director of Bayon Radio, a huge outlet for favorable CPP media, and has ties to more than twenty companies, including as chairperson for Star Airline and Helistar. And his nephew, Hun To, is linked to LHR Asean Import Export, even if he was for a time implicated in a massive drug smuggling operation. Through these ties, Hun Sen is sowing the seeds of a political empire.
As a historian of twentieth century Cambodian history, it is remarkable to observe what Hun Sen’s autocracy has accomplished. Absent a royal link, Hun is quite happy to invent one, whether through uneven coalitions, charismatic appeals and oration, or historical revisionism. Despite his spotty economic record, his party has been able to “sell” one of the poorest countries in Asia a tale of prosperity and promise. A former CPK military man, Hun Sen has all but buried his past as a full believer in the Communist cause and possible active participant in the Cambodian genocide, to reinvent himself as a modern leader with mystical qualities. For all these reasons, the future looks bleak for a restoration of democracy in Cambodia.
Author’s bio: Matthew Galway is a Lecturer of Chinese History at the Australian National University and author of The Emergence of Global Maoism: China’s Red Evangelism and the Cambodian Communist Movement (Cornell University Press, 2022). His research focuses on the globalization of Maoism, intellectual history, and radical overseas Chinese networks in Southeast Asia and Latin America. His second book, Experiments with Marxism-Leninism in Cold War Southeast Asia, is forthcoming with ANU Press. He is a contributor to Made in China Journal (2021-2022), Afterlives of Chinese Communism (ANU Press, 2019) and Translating the Japanese Occupation of China (UBC Press, 2020), and has published his research in The Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Cross Currents, China Information, Asian Journal of Women’s Studies, Asian Ethnicity, and Left History.
1 Jonathan Head, “A Terminal Blow to Democracy,” BBC News (16 November 2019) [https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-42006828]. Accessed 18 May 2022.
2 Matthew Galway, “Cambodia: Hun Sen’s Unrelenting Grip on Power,” Ear to Asia Podcast, Asia Institute, University of Melbourne (12 April 2019) [https://arts.unimelb.edu.au/asia-institute/ear-to-asia/episodes/episode-43].
3 Steve Heder, “Hun Sen’s Consolidation: Death or the Beginning of Reform?,” Southeast Asian Affairs (2005): 114.
4 Steve Heder, “Cambodia’s Democratic Transition to Neoauthoritarianism,” Current History 94 (December 1995): 425-429; and Astrid Norén-Nilsson, Cambodia’s Second Kingdom: Nation, Imagination, and Democracy. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press Southeast Asia Program Publications, 2016), 14.
5 Ian Harris, Buddhism in a Dark Age: Cambodian Monks under Pol Pot. (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2013), 1.
6 Strangio, Hun Sen’s Cambodia, 23.
7 Strangio, Hun Sen’s Cambodia, 24.
8 David P. Chandler, A History of Cambodia. 4th Edition. (Boudler, CO: Westview Press, 2008), 293.
9 Strangio, Cambodia, 183-184. See also See Matthew Galway, The Emergence of Global Maoism: China’s Red Evangelism and the Cambodian Communist Movement, 1949-1979. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2022), 109-136.
10 Astrid Norén-Nilsson, “A Regal Authoritarian Turn in Cambodia,” Journal of Contemporary Asia (December 2021): 1, 18-19.
11 Hun Sen, “Visit of Samdech Hun Sen and Bun Rany to the Former Royal City of Sanlob Prey Nokor in Kompong Cham,” Cambodia New Vision 97 (28 February 2006), 2, as quoted in Norén-Nilsson, Cambodia’s Second Kingdom, 48.