Hun Sen to mark 30 years in power at new Mekong bridge

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen is marking 30 years in power today with a visit to the country's longest bridge, across the Mekong at Neak Loeung, about 60km south of Phnom Penh.

The bridge on Highway 1, which connects to Vietnam, is still under construction. But it is a flagship project long in the making, and scheduled to open in April.

Many are waiting to hear what Cambodia's strongman - he relishes the label - has to say about his long reign.

After all, the self-educated, chess-playing 62-year-old is known for making long and blunt speeches, which include robust attacks against critics.

The Cambodian leader is loathed by many human rights activists at home and abroad for his authoritarian rule, during which he has been ruthless with political opposition and built a circle of loyalists around him.

His ruling Cambodian People's Party has few who can challenge him and he is seen to have groomed his West Point-trained son Hun Manet, a general, to succeed him.

Still, analysts credit him with bringing both political stability and economic growth to a country once bombed by a superpower - the United States - and torn apart in the 1970s by civil war and genocide.

In October last year, the World Bank's senior country economist for Cambodia, Mr Enrique Aldaz Carroll, gushed that "Cambodia has joined the Olympians of growth'', with an annual average gross domestic product growth rate of 7.7 per cent for two decades. The bank forecast it will grow 7.5 per cent this year.

Back in the 1980s, "Hun Sen and his party were considered the only force capable of preventing the return of the genocidal Khmer Rouge", says professor of history Harish Mehta, author of a 1999 Hun Sen biography, Strongman. In Mr Hun Sen's early years in power, this view was shared by the US and Cambodia's former colonial power France, he says.

But his reputation is also clouded.

In a statement yesterday, the independent New York-based Human Rights Watch said "Hun Sen has ruled through violence and fear".

Mr Brad Adams, its Asia director and author of a 67-page report titled 30 Years Of Hun Sen: Violence, Repression And Corruption in Cambodia, was quoted as saying: "Hun Sen has repeatedly used political violence, repression and corruption to remain in power."

Noting "limited space for political opposition and civil society", Mr Adams charged that "the patina of openness has concealed an underlying reality of repression, and his government has been quick to stifle those who pose a threat to his rule".

The Cambodian Centre for Human Rights last November had a list of cases for which there has been little or no accountability, including a January 2014 crackdown in which four garment workers, all in their 20s, were shot dead by security forces during a strike for better pay.

Analysts, by and large, agree with many of the criticisms and accusations levelled at Mr Hun Sen, whose aggressive tactics have in the past even driven opposition figures abroad.

They also agree that corruption is endemic in Cambodia.

It was ranked 156 out of 175 countries in last year's Transparency International in its Corruption Perceptions Index, up from 157 a year earlier.

But Mr Hun Sen must be seen in the context of Cambodia's history and the wider region, they say. "He is a very clever politician, very sure-footed, very intelligent," said Dr David Chandler, professor emeritus of history at Monash University. "His record is bad. But it is no worse than the record in China or Vietnam."

Rights groups and activists have been allowed into Cambodia and the country's media is freer than in other one-party-dominated states. "Cambodia is certainly not a laboratory for transparency and human rights," Dr Chandler said.

"The legal system is not good, and the judiciary is an arm of the state. But the things that are wrong in Cambodia are also wrong in the nations surrounding it."

This article was first published on Jan 14, 2015.
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