Cambodian Co-Prime Minister Hun Sen gestures during a news conference in Phnom Penh on July 10, 1997 during which he denied staging a coup against Co-Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh. More than 100 opposition party members were executed after the coup, for which no one was ever prosecuted. 

(New York) – The 30th anniversary of Hun Sen’s rule in Cambodia highlights the need for influential governments and donors to strengthen efforts for human rights and democratic reforms, Human Rights Watch said in a new report today. January 14, 2015, marks 30 years since Hun Sen took office as prime minister on January 14, 1985.

Hun Sen is now the sixth-longest serving political leader in the world, just behind Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and ahead of Yoweri Museveni of Uganda.

“For three decades, Hun Sen has repeatedly used political violence, repression, and corruption to remain in power,” said Brad Adams, Asia director and author of the report. “Cambodia urgently needs reforms so that its people can finally exercise their basic human rights without fear of arrest, torture, and execution. The role of international donors is crucial in making this happen.”

The 67-page report, “30 Years of Hun Sen: Violence, Repression, and Corruption in Cambodia,” chronicles Hun Sen’s career from being a Khmer Rouge commander in the 1970s to his present role as prime minister and head of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). The report details the violence, repression, and corruption that have characterized his rule under successive governments since 1985.

Hun Sen has ruled through violence and fear. He has often described politics as a struggle to the death between him and all those who dare to defy him. For example, on June 18, 2005, he warned political opponents whom he accused of being “rebels” that “they should prepare coffins and say their wills to their wives.” This occurred shortly after he declared that Cambodia’s former king, Norodom Sihanouk, who abdicated to express his opposition to Hun Sen’s method of governing, would be better off dead.

In a speech on August 5, 2009, he mimicked the triggering of a gun while warning critics not to use the word “dictatorship” to describe his rule. On January 20, 2011, responding to the suggestion that he should be worried about the overthrow of a dictator in Tunisia at the time of the “Arab Spring,” Hun Sen lashed out: “I not only weaken the opposition, I’m going to make them dead ... and if anyone is strong enough to try to hold a demonstration, I will beat all those dogs and put them in a cage.”

Just after his Cambodian People’s Party suffered major electoral setbacks in the National Assembly elections of July 28, 2013, despite systematic fraud and widespread election irregularities orchestrated by his government, he proclaimed that only “death or incapacitation to the point of being unable to work” could unseat him from the summit of power.

“Although in recent decades he has allowed limited space for political opposition and civil society, 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,” Adams said.

Human Rights Watch examined Hun Sen’s human rights record during various Cambodian governments since 1979, and in particular the current Royal Government of Cambodia, which has been in place for more than 20 years. Since Hun Sen maneuvered to stay in office after rejecting the results of a United Nations-administered election in 1993, he and the CPP have remained in power by manipulating the elections held every five years since.

The report is based on materials in Khmer, English, Vietnamese, and Chinese, including official and other Cambodian documents; interviews with Cambodian officials and other Cambodians; interviews with journalists, academics, and nongovernmental organizations; and UN records, foreign government reports, and Cambodian court records.

The report describes:

  • Hun Sen’s early life in Kampong Cham province;
  • His decision to join the Khmer Rouge after the ouster of Prince Norodom Sihanouk in 1970;
  • His role as a Khmer Rouge commander in the 1970s in areas where crimes against humanity were committed;
  • His responsibility in the 1980s as prime minister for a notorious forced labor program and systematic imprisonment of dissidents, and for death squads during the UN peacekeeping operation in 1992-93;
  • The role of his personal bodyguard unit in the deadly March 30, 1997 grenade attack on opposition leader Sam Rainsy;
  • His bloody coup of July 5-6, 1997, and its aftermath, in which more than 100 mostly royalist opposition party members were summarily executed; and
  • The repression and corruption of the past decade during which political and social activists, trade union leaders, and journalists have been killed in connection with their opposition to CPP policies and practices.

In recent years, a government-generated land crisis affecting the urban and rural poor has adversely affected hundreds of thousands of Cambodians, while Hun Sen has openly obstructed accountability for international crimes perpetrated in 1975-1979 by the Khmer Rouge, relying on his control of a Cambodian judiciary that also ensures continuing impunity for abuses.

Human Rights Watch called on influential governments and donors to end their passive response to these decades of rights abuses, repression, and massive corruption, and to make a renewed commitment to support Cambodians who struggle for free and fair elections, the rule of law, an end to corruption and land grabs, and respect for basic rights such as freedom of expression, association, and assembly.

“After 30 years of experience, there is no reason to believe that Hun Sen will wake up one day and decide to govern Cambodia in a more open, inclusive, tolerant, and rights-respecting manner,” Adams said. “The international community should begin listening to those Cambodians who have increasingly demanded the protection and promotion of their basic human rights.”