Cambodia’s ruling party is pumping up its leader’s cult of personality to counter a slide in popularity in the run-up to general elections in 2018
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen arrived in Tbong Khmum province by helicopter on June 21 to begin a re-enactment of his fateful journey across the border into Vietnam 40 years ago on that day.
Along with hundreds of Khmer Rouge defectors who began crossing the border in 1977, and with Vietnamese support, Hun Sen later participated in the invasion that overthrew the genocidal Pot Pot regime two years later.
To mark the 40th anniversary, thousands of pamphlets telling Hun Sen’s life story were printed for distribution to the public.
“Before stepping on Vietnamese soil, Comrade Hun Sen looked back toward Cambodia with tears,” the emotive pamphlet reads. “At the age of 13, I left my hometown because there were no schools where I study, and at 25, I fled my country because of butchers.”
Analysts see the pamphlet’s publication as strategically timed to burnish the long-ruling premier and his Cambodian People’s Party’s (CPP) image as guardians of stability and architects of prosperity in the lead-up to crucial elections scheduled for 2018.
Nem Sowath, director-general of the defense ministry’s department of policy and foreign affairs, told local media that the pamphlet was created “because we want to fill in more of the real history of what happened” during the country’s tumultuous history of civil war.
The education ministry has said it welcomes the idea of including the first-person account in the history curriculum of national schools. It will allow students to learn “where the premier comes from,” said Sowath, and to learn about “all the things we have built”, likely meaning Hun Sen’s ruling CPP, which has been in power since 1979.
While some analysts credit Hun Sen with bravery for defecting from the Khmer Rouge and credit him for the current peace time period of fast economic growth, critics contend the pamphlet is simplistic, sycophantic and hardly tells the complete story of the war years.
For example, there is little mention of what Hun Sen did as a deputy commander of Region 21, a position he held before defecting. The pamphlet is also the latest bid to build Hun Sen’s cult of personality.
It “will only be to receive popularity for the prime minister,” the president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association told local media.
Because the January 1979 Vietnamese invasion and installation of Hun Sen remain politically flammable, Hun Sen has reason to varnish his version of events.
The opposition has long claimed that the Vietnamese-backed defectors overthrew the Khmer Rouge only to hand control of Cambodia over to Hanoi. Even today, the opposition claims Vietnam still pulls the strings from behind the scenes.
For the CPP, however, its leaders’ role in the Khmer Rouge’s eventual downfall continues to provide the party with legitimacy.
Claims that it restored peace and stability to Cambodia, after decades of civil-war, are regularly repeated to underscore the notion the party has brought peace, stability and development from the ashes of death and destruction.
A corollary suggestion often made by the ruling party is that Cambodia will once again be plunged into civil-war if it loses power, as Hun Sen claimed in the lead-up to this month’s commune elections the CPP won, but lost ground to the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).
For a protean party, this historical narrative thrusts Hun Sen as the architect of the country’s “liberation” and continues to provide legitimacy for his three-decade rule.
Lee Morgenbesser, a political scientist at Australia’s Griffith University, published an essay in which he argued that Hun Sen has established a “personalist dictatorship” over the country.
This, analysts say, has been largely achieved through two means. First, Hun Sen has successfully removed competitors within the CPP, a party long known for its factional rivalry.
In 2004, for example, the now-deceased CPP President Chea Sim, another Khmer Rouge defector, was allegedly sidelined after protesting one of Hun Sen’s political decisions.
Soon thereafter the premier ordered police to “surround Chea Sim’s residence, escort him to the airport and put him on a plane to Thailand,” Morgenbesser wrote.
The second way has been to furnish Hun Sen’s image as a “man of the people.” In 2006, the prime minister funded and wrote the preface to a book on Sdech Kan, a 16th century “commoner” who overthrew a corrupt king and established a brief reign of peace and prosperity over the country.
The CPP-aligned business elite has also funded the erection of Sdech Kan statues throughout the country, many of which bear a striking resemblance to Hun Sen. A biopic of Sdech Kan is currently in production which will reportedly be the most expensive Cambodian-produced film in history.
Sophal Ear, associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles, likens Hun Sen’s fascination with Sdech Kan to the Bolivarian “cult” of Hugo Chavez. The late Venezuelan president often presented himself as a reincarnation of the nineteenth-century South American liberator, Simon Bolivar.
“The Sdech Kan tale has far-reaching political significance,” journalist Sebastian Strangio wrote in his book, Hun Sen’s Cambodia.
“As the story of a commoner who rose to topple an unjust king, it provides historical justification for Hun Sen’s overthrow of Prince Ranariddh (in a bloody 1997 purge), his eclipse of the Cambodian monarchy and its replacement with his own stable ‘reign’.”
But Hun Sen’s self-portrayals as a new “peasant king” – as Sdech Kan is known – also reveal his populist tendencies. The prime minister has often mocked his political competitors, first Ranariddh and then Sam Rainsy, as being foreign-educated elites who know little about the lives and aspirations of ordinary Cambodians.
Hun Sen has always had a parochial air that chimes with the rural majority. But in more recent years he has worked doubly hard to present himself as a leader interested in the lives of ordinary people, analysts say.
“He is more open and accessible with the public than before, such as allowing people to take selfies with him,” said Sereiboth Noan, a blogger and member of the popular political discussion group ‘Politikoffee.’
Social media has perpetuated this side of the prime minister’s personality. In September 2015, after two years of denial, he finally admitted that the “Samdech Hun Sen, Cambodian Prime Minister” Facebook page was his own.
Today, the page’s eight million followers are treated to his regular commentary on politics and culture, with photographs both stately and intimate. These include images of the prime minister driving ramshackle motorbikes and walking in a wet white vest along a beach.
“Social media has projected and created the image of someone approachable, almost grandpa-like, which can only be heir-apparent to Sihanouk,” said Sophal Ear, referencing the country’s late king, who often referred to the Cambodian people as his “children.”
Hun Sen’s personality cult is a byproduct of Cambodia’s political environment, in which personality often matters more than policy.
The opposition is no exception to the rule. Former CNRP president Sam Rainsy also fashioned his own minor personality cult, exemplified in his eponymous Sam Rainsy Party.
Hun Sen has built up his cult as popular support for his party has slipped. The CPP’s weak performance in the 2013 general election, at which it narrowly beat the CNRP, has forced Hun Sen to adopt a softer public image, a human touch he’s bid to cultivate over social media.
His is now the sole face of the party. In the run-up to last month’s commune election – which the CPP handily won – he broke from tradition and participated in the party’s campaign rallies.
Perhaps the most important reason for the expansion of Hun Sen’s personality cult is to pave the way for a potential handover to one of his children when the 64-year-old leader eventually decides to step down.
Morgenbesser told the Cambodia Daily that the question for Hun Sen is not “whether to undertake a succession, but when to do so.” He predicted the ideal time would be if the CPP wins next year’s general election in convincing fashion.
Flanked by his three sons, Hun Sen said in a speech in Tbong Khmum province on June 21 that anyone who criticizes his sons should prepare a “coffin”, while claiming there was an opposition bid to “destroy” the first family.
“The Hun family is not the family for you to attack for fun,” he said, adding: “The Hun family is the family that shares your sorrows and the happiness of the Cambodian people.”