Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen on Wednesday marked his 30th year in power by defending his accomplishments while in office and slamming detractors who say he maintained control of the country through political manipulation and an iron rule.
A U.S.-based rights group hit back at Hun Sen, however, saying that any economic development he had brought to Cambodia has been dragged down by rampant corruption and calling for the leader to be held accountable for rights abuses carried out under his watch.
Speaking at a cement casting ceremony for a bridge over the Mekong River in Neak Loeung, 60 kilometers (40 miles) southeast of the capital Phnom Penh, the 62-year-old prime minister said he had brought peace to the formerly war-torn nation during the course of his leadership.
“Today marks 30 years of Hun Sen as prime minister—there is much publicity in the newspapers, which all wrote bad things [about me],” said Hun Sen, who is the world’s sixth longest currently serving political leader.
“There have been advantages and disadvantages [to my leadership]. Please think back. When I began as prime minister, there was war across the country,” he said.
“Don’t be confused—without Hun Sen there would be no Paris Peace Accord. The accords came about because Hun Sen negotiated,” he said, referring to a 1991 agreement through which the United Nations oversaw a ceasefire and democratic elections after years of bloody civil war.
Hun Sen said he had led land reforms in Cambodia in the aftermath of the 1975-79 Khmer Rouge regime, which forced large-scale evacuations and relocations, followed by a period of mass confusion over land rights and the formation of squatter communities when the refugees returned in the 1990s.
The prime minister also spoke of his success in liberalizing the country’s economy, which had dissolved under the ultra-Marxist policies of the Khmer Rouge.
He said that a report published by New York-based Human Rights Watch on Tuesday, which detailed his repeated use of “violence, repression, and corruption” to stay in power, was biased and called for a more balanced accounting of his time as Cambodia’s leader.
“Of course I have made mistakes—I’m not suggesting that I haven’t, but you must balance between the right and the wrong. If one has demonstrated wrong leadership, they can’t stay in power,” he said.
“Why [did the report] only mention bad things about me? [Report author] Brad Adams of Human Rights Watch isn’t perfect either. I’ve worked so hard [to lead the country].”
In its report, Human Rights Watch said Hun Sen had abused his office while in power, repeatedly referring to politics as “a struggle to the death” between him and his opponents, and threatening them with physical harm, while claiming that only his demise or incapacitation could unseat him from the country’s leadership.
It said that since Hun Sen maneuvered to stay in office after rejecting the results of a United Nations-administered election in 1993, he and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) had remained in power by manipulating the polls held every five years since, including most recently in July 2013.
On Wednesday, Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, maintained that Hun Sen was responsible for “very large numbers of deaths in Cambodia” and said no amount of progress achieved should excuse his actions.
“[Hun Sen] often claims economic success, but Cambodia is one of the more corrupt countries in the world and a lot of the state resources have been put into his pocket and the pockets of other officials instead of into the economy and getting to the poor,” he told RFA's Khmer Service.
“If he’s saying he can commit human rights abuses, but it’s okay because on balance he’s done good things for the country … that is not a defense. He is responsible for all of the human rights abuses that he has either ordered or carried out himself.”
Free and fair elections
Adams said what the people of Cambodia want most is to choose their leaders through free and fair polls, but that throughout Hun Sen’s rule he had never once been elected in such a manner.
“And this is not surprising because there is no person in the history of democracies who has been elected and stayed in power for 30 years through free and fair elections. It’s never happened on the planet,” he said.
Hun Sen had been installed as foreign minister by the Vietnamese after their 1979 invasion of Cambodia to remove the Khmer Rouge, took over as prime minister in 1985, and maintained power without an election until refusing to acknowledge losing the U.N.-backed polls in 1993, Adams said.
In 1997, Hun Sen staged a bloody coup to keep his grip on the leadership, and every election since had been judged to be neither free nor fair by international observers, he added.
“So let’s have a free and fair election and see how Hun Sen does,” he said.
On Wednesday, Hun Sen said he would remain in power until at least 2018, when Cambodians will return to the polls for the next general election, and that any longer would depend on the people.
However, the strongman has previously vowed to run the country until he is 74.
Reported by Tin Zakarya and Samean Yun for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.