Cambodian strongman displays iron fist and vulnerability

Hun Sen cries in documentary featuring his escape to Vietnam while serving the murderous Pol Pot regime
Cambodian strongman displays iron fist and vulnerability

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen prays to Buddhist monks during the Cambodian People's Party ceremony marking the 38th anniversary of the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime in Phnom Penh on Jan. 7, 2017. (Photo by Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP)

 

"In the world, there was no leader who suffered more pain and bitterness than me," a dewy-eyed Hun Sen, the long-serving prime minister of Cambodia, says in a new TV documentary Marching Towards National Salvation.

The documentary, which was recently aired across the country and has racked hundreds of thousands of views on the premier's Facebook page, chronicles his escape to Vietnam while serving the Pol Pot regime and his eventual return to liberate his country.

The film, which often steers into outright propaganda, has been criticized for omitting information regarding Hun Sen's role as a regimental commander for the Khmer Rouge regime which is blamed for the deaths around 1.7 million people. It also ignores the fact that China, now Hun Sen's biggest backer, supported the Khmer Rouge when it was murdering Cambodians between 1975 and 1979.

It does, however, contain in-depth interviews with a Hun Sen few have seen before. He regularly dabs his face with a handkerchief to dry his tears when recalling the death of his child during the Khmer Rouge days, missing his wife and looking back at his homeland while escaping through the jungle.

"Now he had to be far away from his country at 25 years old due to the emergence of murderers," Hun Sen says, typically referring to himself in the third person. "Those tears were for my country before I crossed the border," he adds, with tears rolling down his cheeks.

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The emotional, affable and calm-headed character depicted in the film is a far cry from today's Hun Sen, who has menacingly vowed to eliminate hundreds to prevent his overthrow in speeches and would regularly warn that "color revolutionaries" would be rooted out.

These threats were put into action last September when opposition leader Kem Sokha was arrested in the middle of the night and thrown in jail on treason charges. The CNRP, Kem Sokha's party and Hun Sen's only threat in this year's election, was dissolved soon after, resulting in Cambodia becoming the world's newest de facto one-party state.

Days after the documentary was aired, Hun Sen was back on well-trodden ground at the Victory Over Genocide Day rally, calling for the continued pursuit of color revolutionaries despite the CNRP's dissolution.

"I am underlining for our compatriots that though the organization of color revolution was dismantled, perfidious schemes of ill-willed circles taking commands from behind their backs for color revolution in Cambodia have not yet ended," The Phnom Penh Post reported Hun Sen saying at the highly politicized affair that celebrates the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge.

Analysts said the documentary and Hun Sen's rally rhetoric within the first week of the year illustrate that he is likely attempting to humanize himself in the eyes of the public after a year of living up to his name as a ruthless strongman while still appearing unwilling to halt the pursuit of perceived foes.

"After the 2013 elections, many thought that the CPP should drop its constant references to 1979, since these evidently did not resonate with youth," said Astrid Noren-Nilsson, an associate senior lecturer at Sweden's Lund University specializing in Cambodian politics, in reference to the last general election in which the opposition made huge inroads.

"The documentary is the latest example of how Hun Sen on the contrary has resolved to settle the matter by emphatically explaining his role in Cambodian history, the way he sees it, to Cambodia's young."

Hun Sen portraying an air of vulnerability was likely a deliberate ploy to curry favor with his people at a sensitive time, Noren-Nilsson added.

"No doubt Hun Sen letting his barriers down is intended to create a sense of nearness with people at this critical point of time," she said. "It is a kind of intimacy that would go down well with many Cambodians, who tend to treasure personal narratives and build relationships by sharing life stories."

Ou Virak, director of the Future Forum public policy think tank, said he believed Hun Sen may wants to emulate the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk, who had near universal support of the people despite his reputation for occasional ruthlessness.

"He does want to project a softer side, maybe a benevolent dictator or benevolent strongman, something that Sihanouk was able to pull off. Maybe that's the idea he wants to project," Ou Virak said, adding that such a tactic would likely not be successful.

Lee Morgenbesser, a scholar at Australia's Griffith University who has studied authoritarianism and dictatorship, said walking a tightrope between the iron fist and vulnerability was one many dictators had used, including Russia's Vladimir Putin and Rwanda's Paul Kagame.

"The benefit is that it shows a more sincere style of political leadership to citizens, who dictators nevertheless require some support from (especially around elections)," Morgenbesser said.

"Most importantly, however, it does not affect the relationship between the dictator and his ruling coalition — the elites he depends on for survival. For Hun Sen, a bit of humanity is valuable when combined with a good bit more repression."

Marching Towards National Salvation was unsurprisingly lauded by many of Hun Sen's more than 9 million Facebook followers (a disproportionately high number of supporters from Bangladesh, India and the Philippines has led to suspicions he buys "likes" from "click farms").

"Without Samdech [Hun Sen], we could not have escaped this dark regime!" exclaimed one top commenter. "Amazing footage of Vietnam-Cambodia relationship history! Live long and prosper Mr. PM, please let the peace last forever," wrote another.

Although mostly drowned out by ruling party supporters, some opposition voices chimed in, with one stating that "as humans, we must stand united with CNRP."

With Hun Sen showing his caring and callous faces in the first week of 2018, Morgenbesser said he believed the prime minister would continue his repressive policies despite removing his only political threat.

"Given that dictators find it difficult to stop identifying perceived enemies and punishing them accordingly, I expect Hun Sen's extended bout of repression to continue this year," he said.

However, Ou Virak said the fear instilled within the populace last year domestically, along with witnessing turmoil in countries where there has been regime change globally this decade, would be enough to muzzle any mass dissent against Hun Sen and his regime.

"The color revolution — it doesn't really matter whether people believe him. What actually matters is people's fear of any potential consequences over the unknown," Ou Virak said.

"Change has become a lot riskier and that's all the government needs — for the people to feel that."

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