Punished at the polls, Cambodia's long-serving PM is smiling again

Punished at the polls, Cambodia's long-serving PM is smiling again

PHNOM PENH - His party is reeling from its worst-ever election result. His political opponents have grown bold and vocal. His people are protesting on the streets. So why is Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen smiling?

The long-ruling autocrat emerged beaming from lengthy closed-door meetings this week with his old political foe, Sam Rainsy, who says Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party (CPP) cheated its way to a narrow victory in a July 28 general election.

He has reason to be cheerful.

Although lawmakers from Sam Rainsy's Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) are threatening to boycott the new session of parliament, due to begin on Monday, until an independent inquiry is held into electoral fraud, the recent political violence has left Hun Sen mostly unscathed.

Thousands of CNRP supporters dispersed on Tuesday after a three-day rally in a park in the capital, Phnom Penh, where one man was killed and several injured when police opened fire on stone-throwing protesters on Sunday night.

Hun Sen's composure after this week's meetings suggests his renewed confidence in breaking the political deadlock and extending his nearly three decades of rule by another five years, say analysts.

His smiling photo-ops, however, could also hint at changes ahead for Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge soldier who has stamped his authority on every walk of life in Cambodia.

After millions of Cambodian voters deserted the CPP in an election widely regarded as tainted, Hun Sen appears intent on softening his remote and fearsome image.

From a humble farming background, Hun Sen was just 33 when he took power in 1985, and is now in the unenviable company of enduring dictators such as Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe and Kazakhstan's Nursultan Nazarbayev.

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