Hun Sen forever? Ageing leader struggles to woo Cambodian youth

Phnom Penh(Dpa) – On January 14, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen will mark 32 years in power.

As one of the longest serving non-royal leaders in the world, he is still admired by many Cambodians as one of the leaders who brought stability – at a price – after decades of war.

His portrait hangs in homes alongside that of the King and his name is attached to large public works, like Phnom Penh's Hun Sen Park, Hun Sen Library and thousands of schools across the countryside.

As Hun Sen advances into his sixties, however, many Cambodians are beginning to wonder what the country would look like without him at the helm as it goes to the polls in 2017 and 2018. Hun Sen now faces the greatest threat to his personal rule since Cambodia transitioned to democracy in 1993.

After neutralizing various rivals over the years, he will have to deal with a different kind of challenge: the postwar generation. Sixty-five percent of Cambodians, approximately 10 million people, are under age 30, according to the United Nations Development Programme. And they have very different demands than their parents. 

"The young are the greatest political challenge for Hun Sen. The [Cambodian People's Party's] old political formula – 'we brought you peace and stability after years of chaos, so vote for us' – has made little impression on new voters who have grown up in times of peace, with greater knowledge of the outside world," says Sebastian Strangio, author of "Hun Sen's Cambodia."

His tenure in power has been marked by both political repression and, on occasion, state-sanctioned violence, according to human rights groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

But Hun Sen has begun to rebrand himself with the help of Facebook. He has taken a page from his rival, French-Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy, whose social media campaign in 2013 helped to nearly unseat Hun Sen in an surprising electoral outcome.

In the years since then, Hun Sen has used his Facebook page to "soften his image, to depict himself as a fatherly figure who is responsive to the problems facing Cambodia's youth," says Strangio, and position himself as a "supreme man of merit: someone who is in charge precisely because he deserves to be in charge."

The rebranding campaign has transformed the one-time Khmer Rouge commander, later groomed for leadership by Communist Vietnam, into an avid Facebook user, sharing hundreds of photos of himself and his family or engaging in his favourite hobby, golf.

Despite the outreach, which has earned him 6 million followers, his personal appeal to new voters is nevertheless underlined with a threat.

"Hun Sen is regarded as the centre of political stability of Cambodia. Without the centre, Cambodia may fall into chaos," says Vannarith Chheang, Southeast Asia consultant at the Nippon Foundation in Japan. "It's a fragile system. We don't have strong democratic institutions."

Cambodia has never seen a fully peaceful transfer of power since independence from France in 1953, including its 1993 United Nations-backed transition to democracy when death squads hunted down opposition candidates despite the presence of thousands of UN personnel.

Despite losing the popular vote in 1993, Hun Sen forced a coalition government, becoming Cambodia's "second prime minister," alongside the elected one. Some fear he might do the same if he loses the popular vote next year.

"If you look at 1993, a peaceful transition of power didn't happen really," says political analyst Sophal Ear, recalling "a no-winners-no-losers outcome."

"If history is any indication, it will be tough to imagine a transition after so many decades in power," he says. 

Hun Sen and the CPP currently have the backing of the military and much of the establishment, according to Chheang, although educated post-war returnees tend to favour the opposition.

Hun Sen appears to be training his sons, Hun Manet and Hun Many, to take his place, according to Strangio, although he has not indicated plans to step down in the near future. 

Strangio finds it "highly unlikely that the CPP would ever accept an opposition victory, let alone hand over power peacefully."

"In the political and moral vocabulary of Cambodian politics, this would be tantamount to handing the country over to traitors. Never say never, of course. But a lot would have to change for this to become a possibility."

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