Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen marked 26 years in power last week, winning praise from his party for bringing growth and slashing poverty but criticized by rights activists for stifling freedom, silencing the opposition, and fostering corruption.
The 59-year-old Hun Sen is the longest-serving leader in Southeast Asia after the Sultan of Brunei and has vowed to remain in power for another decade, with a vision to bolster the economy by boosting rice exports and the incomes of Cambodians who now largely rely on the garment and textile industry.
“If I am still alive, I will continue to stand as a candidate until I am 90,” he said in 2007. But two years later, he said he would be out by 2023.
Chea Sim, head of the ruling Cambodian People's Party, said it would continue to pick Hun Sen as the Prime Minister after the next general elections in 2013, which it is confident of sweeping.
He said that Hun Sen had brought peace to the country, once ruled by the fanatically communist Khmer Rouge which caused the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million people, and that he has maintained a democratic government based on the rule of law.
Other party officials said the prime minister has helped fuel economic growth, slashed poverty, and brought political stability.
But opposition leaders and rights groups say Hun Sen's continued rule will only worsen human rights violations and corruption and result in authoritarian rule.
"I think Hun Sen wants to consolidate power," said Brad Adams, executive director of New York-based Human Rights Watch's Asia Division.
"He wants to finish up his critics in Cambodia. He wants a one-party state even though he pretends to hold elections once every five years because he can manage and win them automatically."
Adams also accused Hun Sen of wanting "to control all Cambodia's resources, and he is changing Cambodia towards capitalism under dictatorship."
Cambodia was among 25 countries whose freedom levels plunged in 2010 amid an erosion of civil rights and political liberties, according to global watchdog Freedom House.
"Cambodia received a downward trend arrow due to the government’s consolidation of control over all aspects of the electoral process, its increased intimidation of civil society, and its apparent influence over the tribunal trying former members" of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, the group said in a report last week.
Transparency International, the Berlin-based monitoring group, said in a recent report that 43 percent of Cambodians polled said corruption had increased and 30 percent felt it had decreased, while 27 percent believed it was around the same.
Cambodia's judiciary was found to be the most corrupt sector in that country, it said.
But Hun Sen’s Office of the Council of Ministers said the authorities are moving forcefully to end graft.
“Cambodia now has an Anti-Corruption Law, and the Anti-Corruption Unit is actively and publicly pursuing cases of alleged corruption,” it said.
The Office of the Council of Ministers also dismissed criticism of Hun Sen’s long hold on power, citing former prime ministers Mahathir Mohamad and Lee Kuan Yew of neighboring countries Malaysia and Singapore respectively who were also at the helm for many years.
“This is a strange criticism indeed, for longevity in office is not typically held as a negative attribute,” it said in a statement. “But the prime minister is a relatively young man and in good health, and thus can be expected to contribute to the progress of the country for many years to come.”
Cambodia's main opposition party leader Sam Rainsy, Hun Sen's arch-rival, is living in exile after fleeing the country in 2009 fearing what he called politically motivated charges.
He was convicted in absentia in September last year and sentenced to 10 years in prison for a politically sensitive comment about a border dispute with Vietnam, cited by critics as an example of the government's intimidation of its opponents.
The lawsuit was filed after Sam Rainsy questioned whether the border had been incorrectly marked by the government to Cambodia's disadvantage.
Earlier, a year ago, a court sentenced Sam Rainsy to two years in prison for a political protest in which border markers were uprooted along the frontier with Vietnam. He led the protest to dramatize his claim that Vietnam is encroaching on Cambodian territory, an issue he often raises to garner public support.
Sam Rainsy had accused the court of being a political instrument, saying that "Everybody ... rightly says that the judiciary in this country is everything but independent, being only a political tool for the authoritarian ruling party to silence any critical voices."
Opposition out of touch?
With the opposition leader out of the country, the movement’s future appears bleak. Some civil society groups say that Rainsy's party has lost touch with its original pro-democracy platform, focusing instead on emotional nationalistic disputes with the ruling party.
Hun Sen, once a member of the ultra-leftist Khmer Rouge, later turned on them and joined Vietnamese forces which defeated the Khmer Rouge in 1979. The Vietnamese communists installed a new Cambodian government that year, and in January 14, 1985, Hun Sen was made prime minister
He is sympathetic to Hanoi, while part of Sam Rainsy's support comes from appealing to traditional anti-Vietnamese sentiment among Cambodians who do not trust their much larger neighbor.
Yim Sovann, Sam Rainsy's spokesperson, said Cambodia might have achieved development under Hun Sen but that many issues remain unresolved.
The country is debt-laden and lives on foreign donor funds of 500 million dollars annually, Yim Sovann said.
Margo Picken, once a director of the U.N.'s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Cambodia, said Hun Sen and his officials hold absolute power and seize control of any institution that challenges that power.
While Hun Sen has moved to boost growth and reduce poverty, his circle has exploited the country's natural resources, pocketed financial gains and disregarded human rights, Picken said.
Concerns have focused, too, on Hun Sen's bid to curtail the activities of nongovernmental organizations.
The U.S. State Department last week cited a new law that "would constrain the legitimate activities of NGOs," and urged Hun Sen's government to hold talks with these groups and to "reconsider whether such a measure is even necessary."
Rights groups in December also voiced alarm as Cambodia began to introduce laws making it a crime to criticize judges or to hurt the feelings of public officials.
Meanwhile, Cambodia has come under increasing influence by China, its top investor. Hun Sen was in Beijing last month, signing 13 agreements in areas including hydroelectric power, port facilities, and financial loans.
More than a year ago, Cambodia deported a group of 20 Uyghur Muslim asylum-seekers back to China despite protests from the United States and the U.N.
The Chinese played an important role as counterweight to Vietnamese influence during the 1970s and 1980s, but U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned during a recent visit that Cambodia should not become "too dependent" on Beijing.
Hun Sen has also been accused of nepotism, charges flatly dismissed by the prime minister. His 33-year-old son, Hun Manet, was promoted to a two-star general earlier this month amid speculation the young man is being groomed to succeed his father.
Hun Manet is already chief of the ministry of defense's anti-terrorism unit as well as deputy commander of Hun Sen's personal bodyguard unit.
Hun Sen hit back at the nepotism charges, saying that his son, who graduated from West Point and has a doctorate in economics at Britain's University of Bristol, is well-qualified for his roles.
"He joined the army in 1994. He has been in the army for 16 years, and there is promotion within the army ranks," Hun Sen said in a speech broadcast on national radio.
But Chea Vannath, a Cambodian independent political analyst, was quoted saying this week that Hun Manet's latest appointment was to “prepare for a smooth succession.”
A key factor for the “rapid rise in the ranks of General Hun is due, in part, to the fact that he is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, one of the most prestigious schools in the world,” said the Office of the Council of Ministers.
“He is representative of a younger generation of Cambodians, who enjoy the benefits of international education.”
Reported by Samean Yun for Radio Free Asia’s Khmer service. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.