Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen smiles while casting his vote in the election for the National Assembly in Phnom Penh on July 26, 1998. (Photo: AFP)
Gunfire crackles, trucks explode and a shooting star announces the birth of a future ruler in an 80-episode dramatization of Cambodian leader Hun Sen's life, now airing three days a week in the run-up to one-sided national elections.
Cambodia goes to the polls on July 23, with the 70-year-old prime minister effectively running unopposed as he seeks to cement his legacy and prepares to hand the reins to his son Hun Manet.
One of the world's longest-serving leaders, Hun Sen has shored up his nearly four-decade rule by playing the West's desire for democratic reforms against China's push to build influence in Southeast Asia, collecting copious development aid and foreign investment from both sides over the years.
But critics say his rule has been marked by political repression, environmental destruction, entrenched corruption and uneven economic growth -- especially in recent years as Chinese largesse, which comes with no inconvenient demands for human rights improvements, began to eclipse Western partners'.
"This election, likely Hun Sen's last as prime minister, is all about securing and enshrining his legacy," Sebastian Strangio, author of "Hun Sen's Cambodia", told AFP.
"As such, it is no surprise that Hun Sen's life story and achievements are receiving such a wide airing."
The near-total absence of political opposition has not stopped the premier from exhorting workers to vote for his Cambodian People's Party (CPP) -- and to watch the sweeping dramatization on his daughter's TV channel.
'A real story'
The series, "The Son Under the Full Moon", takes viewers from Hun Sen's humble beginnings to the hardship suffered by the country and his family under the murderous Khmer Rouge -- to which he once belonged -- all while blending truth with fantastical fiction.
He and his acolytes maintain it is an accurate depiction of the past -- despite appearances by computer-generated Khmer gods and spirits who show up to guide the young Hun Sen.
"It is a real story," CPP spokesman Sok Eysan told AFP of the drama, produced by a committee created by Hun Sen in 2021.
Sok Eysan said there was no state budget for the production, insisting it had been funded by CPP supporters.
"This biopic has only one goal: to promote our leader, so that people and the world know the truth about his perseverance from a simple person to a statesman," he added.
"Truly, it is a story about me," a tearful Hun Sen told an audience earlier this year at the series launch, adding he had helped with the script.
Once a commander for the Khmer Rouge -- the hardline communists who overthrew the US-backed government in 1975 and killed as much as a quarter of the population -- Hun Sen ultimately defected to Vietnam as the regime's purges began to cut deeper into its own ranks.
He returned alongside a Vietnamese army that toppled the regime, taking credit for Cambodia's salvation and being rewarded by Hanoi with his installation as premier in 1985.
Exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy has panned the new show, telling AFP that a "personality cult is meant to hide lack of substance when it comes to a leader's real merits".
And the new series is only the latest in a long list of projects sponsored by Hun Sen that have sought to polish his image.
Films and books lionizing his life have previously been commissioned, and in 2017, statues of a legendary Khmer king popped up across the country -- many bearing a striking resemblance to Cambodia's leader.
At the same time, Hun Sen has pursued a ruthless campaign against the country's historically free press, shutting one of the last independent news outlets earlier this year.
Opposition figures who have not fled abroad have been jailed, with activists accusing him of weaponizing Cambodia's legal system against them.
Over the years, Hun Sen has also placed relatives and staunch loyalists in key military and government positions, undermining the establishment of a democratic meritocracy.
"He was able to do what he wanted to do domestically by leveraging his international relationships with China, and then fears of the China threat in the West," the Lowy Institute's Herve Lemahieu told AFP.
Hun Sen's handling of global powers is indicative of an unorthodox savvy, analysts say -- one matched by his willingness to use harsh measures to quash dissent at home.
"He understands world events without a formal education," political analyst Virak Ou told AFP.
"But also over the past 30 years, he has ruled with an iron fist."
In the twilight of his rule, he said, Hun Sen "seems to be looking desperately to create and control that narrative of his legacy".
Housewife Kunthea, 51, said she liked the Hun Sen TV show, and told AFP she watched to find out more about Cambodia's leader.
"I love him even more after watching," she said.
As he courted garment workers' votes at a special economic zone outside Phnom Penh last month -– handing out $5 bills -- Hun Sen urged the crowd to watch his series to understand "the truth about uncle's life".