Hun Sen has been the leader of Cambodia for almost three decades: first as the puppet ruler under the Vietnamese, beginning in 1985, then as a co-prime mister with Prince Ranariddh after the 1993 elections. then as the uncontested prime minister after Prince Ranariddh was ousted in a coup in 1997 He s one of the worlds’ longest serving prime ministers.

Hun is Southeast Asia's longest-serving leader after the Sultan of Brunei. According to ro AFP and Reuters: “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. His government is regularly accused of suppressing political freedoms and muzzling activists. But he has also steered the impoverished country from the ashes of civil war and overseen a growing economy through development, tourism, and garment exports.”

Hun Sen has been able to hold onto power by controlling Cambodia’s core military and political sectors, and when applicable electoral institutions, through the fluid and tumultuous political changes. One human rights activist told the New Yorker, “Hun Sen is the master of Khmer politics. He has outmaneuvered every player.”

Hun Sen was able to get as far as he did by insisting that he was the one most capable of dealing with Pol Pot and although he was once a Pol Pot supporter himself. He managed to win elections even though most people believed that if elections were free and fair there is no way he could win. The international community tacitly supported him because of the stability he brought.

In his early years political opponents of Hun Sen accused him of being a Vietnamese puppet. This was due to his position in the government created by Vietnam while Cambodia was under Vietnamese military occupation and the fact that he was a prominent figure in the People's Revolutionary Party of Kampuchea (now known as the Cambodian People's Party), which governed Cambodia as a one-party state under Vietnamese military occupation from 1979 until elections in 1993. Hun Sen and his supporters reject such charges, saying that he represents only the Cambodian people. [Source: Wikipedia]

Julia Wallace wrote in the International Herald Tribune: “Hun Sen, a canny former Khmer Rouge guerrilla fighter who later rebelled against the regime, has held power for the past 27 years. Western countries criticize his government’s record on human rights: Protesters and activists have been shot, and high-profile opposition figures are routinely prosecuted on trumped-up charges. But the steps that he is taking to remake Cambodian culture in his own image are perhaps an even more insidious form of control. Hun Sen has already commissioned dozens of the country’s top comedians as military officers in his personal bodyguard unit, ensuring that their jokes toe the party line. Nearly every new school, bridge or road that has been constructed or renovated in the past decade is named after Hun Sen or Bun Rany. Hun Sen and his relatives have been given lavish, nonsensical royal titles with Sanskrit roots. Hun Sen now goes by Samdech Akka Moha Sena Padei Techo, something like Illustrious Prince, Great Supreme Protector and Famed Warrior. Or Techo, for short. [Source: Julia Wallace, International Herald Tribune, January 18, 2013]

Hun Sen’s Life

Hun Sen comes from genuine peasant stock. The son of poor peasants, he was born in in 1951 and had virtually no formal education. For many years he worked as agricultural laborer. Although Hun Sen's birthday is officially celebrated on April 4, 1951, he had revealed that his actual date of birth was August 5, 1952. He had apparently lied about his date of birth to appear older when joining the Khmer Rouge in his youth.

Hun Sen was born in Kampong Cham, and was the third child of six children to a peasant family. His father, Hun Neang, was a resident monk in a local Wat in Kampong Cham province before defrocking himself to join the French resistance and married Hun Sen's mother, Dee Yon in the 1940s. Hun Neang's paternal grandparents were wealthy landowners of Teochew Chinese heritage. Hun Neang inherited some of his family assets and led a relatively comfortable life, as they owned several hectares of land until a kidnapping incident forced their family to sell off much of their assets. [Source: Wikipedia]

Hun Sen left his family at the age of 13 to attend a monastic school in Phnom Penh. When Lon Nol usurped power from Sihanouk in 1970 during a bloodless coup, Hun Nal gave up his education to join the Khmer Rouge. Two years later, Hun Nal changed his name to Hun Sen. He was wounded in the left eye, which was later removed, in 1975 on the day before the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh. [Ibid]

Hun Sen in the Khmer Rouge

Hun Sen, the current prime minister of Cambodia, was a brigade commander in the Khmer Rouge before he defected to Vietnam. He joined the Khmer Rouge at the age if 17 and rose to the level of division commander and managed to stay of trouble in the purges. He participated in the assault of Phnom Penh and lost his left eye while with the Khmer Rouge (he now has a glass eye) and was wounded five times. The level of his involvement with the Khmer Rouge is not clear. One politician who worked with him in the 1980s told the New Yorker, Hun Sen was in charge of discipline and revolutionary morale” and added “officers based their discipline on having people eliminated.”

Hun Sen came to power with the Khmer Rouge and served as a Battalion Commander in the Eastern Region of Democratic Kampuchea (the state name during the Khmer rouge government). In 1975, his battalion oversaw a brutal crackdown against the Muslim Cham minority group, although Hun Sen claims to have been recovering in hospital at the time. In 1977 during internal purges of the Khmer Rouge regime, Hun Sen and his battalion cadres fled to Vietnam. [Source: Charlie Campbell, Time magazine, February 13, 2014]

Hun Sen defected to the Vietnamese side in 1977, possibly to escape purges, which earned him names "traitor," "quisling," and lackey," and "one-eyed Hun Sen” among his former Khmer Rouge comrades. . Thorough scrutiny of his record with he Khmer Rouge has not tuned up any involvement in genocide.

Hun Sen became one of the leaders of the rebel army and government that the Vietnamese government sponsored when they prepared to invade Cambodia. When the Khmer Rouge regime was overthrown, Hun Sen was appointed Foreign Minister of the Vietnamese-installed People's Republic of Kampuchea/State of Cambodia (PRK/SOC) in 1979 and in 1985 he was elected Chairman of the Council of Ministers and Prime Minister, after the death of Chairman Chan Sy until 1990, [Source: Wikipedia]

Researchers have said there is no evidence linking Hun Sen to the Khmer Rouge atrocities despite his past alliance with the now-defunct communist movement, making it unlikely for him to be indicted by the U.N.-backed genocide tribunal.

Hun Sen After the Khmer Rouge

Two years after his defection, in 1979, the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia an captured Phnom Penh and ousted the Khmer Rouge. At that time the 27-year-old Hun Sen was named Foreign Minister in the Vietnamese-installed People's Republic of Kampuchea/State of Cambodia (PRK/SOC).

In January 1985, as the age of 33, Hun Sen was he was elected Chairman of the Council of Ministers and Prime Minister, after the death of Chairman Chan Sy until 1990, (with a brief interruption from 1986 until 1987). He was not considered a complete puppet however and the record shows that he differed with the Vietnamese on many issues. After the Vietnamese left, few people thought that Hun Sen would remain a player in Cambodian politics but he did.

See Vietnamese Rule

Hun Sen’s Character and Family

Hun Sen is married to Bun Rany. He met her im 1974. The following year they were married. Once, when asked who was the leader in his house, Hun Sen replied, “Today is Thursday, a working day, but I have asked my wife that after lunch I get the permission to play golf.”

Hun Sen and Bun Rany have six children, three sons and three daughters: Manet, Mana, Manit, Mani, Mali and Malis. The youngest, Malis was adopted. Hun Sen said they adopted their third daughter in the mid '80s when she was 18 days old. She has carried his family name, Hun, just like his biological children. Hun Manet is a 1999 West Point Academy graduate and obtained his PhD in Economics at the University of Bristol. In 2010, Manet was promoted to Major General in the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) and became the Deputy Commander of the Prime Minister's Body Guard headquarters. [Source: Wikipedia, AP]

Hun Sen reportedly had an affair with an actress who was murdered. In July 1999, the popular actress Piseth Peaklica was killed when two gun man opened fire on her while she was shopping at a market in Phnom Penh with her 7-year-old niece. The 34-year-old was dancer in the Royal Ballet was best known for her leading role in Shadow of Darkness , a film made by King Sihanouk. Huge crowds gathered outside the hospital to wish her well. Some offered to donate their blood. She hung on for a week before she died.

There were rumors that she was assassinated because of an affair with the Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen. According to one account Hun Sen fell in love with Peaklica but called off the affair after Hun Sen’ wife got wind of what was happening. A concerned police chief warned the actress to break off the affair. She didn’t and was gunned down on the orders of Hun Sen’s wife.

As proof the affair existed, Peaklica’s family produced a love poem written by Hun Sen to Peaklica and diary written by Peaklica with an entry over her unhappiness over the ending of her affair with “darling Sen.” Hun Sen denied the rumors and took the opportunity to congratulate himself for allowing a free press that can print rumors about its leaders.

Hun Sen’s Character and Songwriting

Hun Sen is a very crafty, manipulative and wily politician. He knows how to play the international community. Nothing seems to below him: cheating, betrayal, killing. When confronted by the foreign press he either does not answer the question and gives a rosy scenario. Hun Sen reportedly is a chain smoker and likes to drink green tea. He also enjoys playing golf and has studied English with a tutor.

Hun Sen enjoys writing songs and sometimes sets his speeches to music. "I can't sing and I can't play an instrument," he told the New York Times, "but I can write." He often writes music late into the night and likes to jot down lyrics on helicopter and plane flights. "There are times when I compose with tears in my eyes," he said, "especially when I write about a wife separated from her husband, or about a pagoda boy or about the virtues of my mother."

One of his love songs about rural development goes: "My heart aches because I miss you so/ I see you bathing but you turn your back on me/ It shocked me darling when you told me you loved me no more/ But even so, I still care enough about you to build a road for you." His ode to human rights goes: "Bravo for the day of culture and peace!/ Respect human rights, respect the value of the other and yourself."

Many of the songs are linked with popular melodies and played on the government radio station. Cassettes versions are sold in the markets. One cassette vendor told the New York Times, "We displayed one once, but we took it down when the cover started to turn yellow.

Wikileaks-Released US Embassy Cables on Hun Sen

In July 2011, WikiLeaks released its small cache of Cambodia-related dispatches. The 777 cables from the US Embassy in Phnom Penh span the period from 1992 to 2010, nearly the entire life of democratic Cambodia. [Source: Sebastian Strangio, Asia Times, July 27, 2011]

Sebastian Strangio wrote in the Asia Times: “In one dispatch from 1995 (95PHNOMPENH3751), Hun Sen is described as showing evidence of "paranoia" after rumors of an assassination plot cropped up in the local press. It describes a leader who "continues to show a near-obsession with his personal security" and would not travel outside the city unless accompanied by a retinue of around 60 bodyguards. In later years, Hun Sen showed signs of "increasing maturity", according to a 2008 cable (08PHNOMPENH694) signed by outgoing US ambassador Joseph Mussomeli, who cited the government's "restrained" reaction to provocations from Thailand on contested border territory and apparent commitment to democratic reform.

Overwhelmingly, however, the cables paint a picture of a leader adept at flattering and cajoling US officials while playing his own cards close to his chest. "The PM was on a charm offensive that encompassed an hour and a half of discussion peppered with jokes, historical references, and talking points that played to issues of [US government] interest," stated a cable (06PHNOMPENH361) documenting a meeting between Hun Sen and US Senate staffer Paul Grove.

In her first meeting with Hun Sen in 2009 (09PHNOMPENH79), current ambassador Carol Rodley recalled him "gushingly stating that he spends more of his time with the American ambassador than with any other members of the diplomatic community". Ahead of the 2008 Cambodian national election, however, another cable (09PHNOMPENH489) described Hun Sen as also presiding over an "autocratic nip-and-tuck" and a "sophisticated, rules-based campaign to chip away at free speech".

According to another leaked cable, Cambodia's leading businessmen are linked to Hun Sen and the political leadership in a tight mesh of personal relationships and economic accommodations. Hun Sen enjoys a "mutually beneficial" relationship with the country's oligarchs who donate money towards the CPP in exchange for his personal backing in their business ventures. This economic in-breeding, the cable concludes, acts to "reinforce the culture of impunity and limit progress on reforms such as Hun Sen's self-declared 'war on corruption'."

Hun Sen Severs Ties to Gay Daughter But Later Slams Gay Bias

In October 2007, Associated Press reported” Hun Sen “said he was severing ties with his adopted daughter, who is a lesbian, but appealed to people not to discriminate against gays. ''My adopted daughter now has a wife. I'm quite disappointed,'' Hun Sen said. He made the rare revelation about his closely guarded family life during a public speech at a student graduation ceremony. Hun Sen said he plans to file a civil court case to disown his adopted daughter so that she cannot claim any inheritance from his family. ''We are concerned that she might one day cause us trouble...and try to stake her claim for a share of our assets,'' he said. However, he appealed to society to show respect for gay people, saying "Most of them are good people and are not doing alcohol, drugs or racing vehicles."[Source: Associated Press, October 31 2007]

In December 2009, Associated Press reported: Hun Sen urged the Cambodia’s not to discriminate against their gay countrymen. He said he had heard requests from gay Cambodians that they be able to enjoy the same rights and freedoms as others. "There are gays and lesbians in every country, so there should be no discrimination against them just because of their destiny," he said.[Source: Associated Press, December 11, 2009]

Gay rights is not a major issue in Cambodia, and Hun Sen seemed to have been inspired by discussions of the subject on International Human Rights Day on Monday, including on local television. Cambodian society, as in neighboring Thailand, is generally tolerant of homosexuality.

Hun Sen’s Violent Nephews

Nhim Sophea wrote in CAAI News Media: “Hun Sen’s nephews beat, killed, intimidate ordinary Cambodians, journalists, tourists, police, and even Parliament members with impunity. They feel they can do anything they want in Cambodia with little or no consequences. [Source: Nhim Sophea, CAAI News Media, August 22, 2008 ^]

1. Hun Chea: On August 3, 2008, at about 11:30 pm, a black Cadillac Escalade SUV sped north up Phnom Penh’s Sothearos Boulevard at more than 100km/h before running down a man on a motorbike, tearing off his left arm and left leg in front of the Regent Park Hotel. Hun Chea at a karaoke club early Friday in central Phnom Penh after firing seven shots in the club and three more shots threatening police who rushed to the scene. ^

2. Hun To: July 19, 2008, Noun Vuthy, a parliament member, was attacked by Hun To’s bodyguards. You Saravuth, Sralang Khmer journalist threatened by Hun Tho. Numerous undocumented reports of intimidation, beating, kicking ordinary Cambodian and entertainer for looking at him or does not do what he want. ^

3. Nim Sophea:, the son of Hun Sen’s sister, have taken part in a car chase, which ended when the car he was travelling in lost control and crashed. According to police, Hun Sen’s nephew then fired an automatic rifle at passers-by. The authorities believe he may have been angry or drunk, which left two people dead. His younger brother, Nim Chan Tana were also involved in the car race. ^

4. Nhim Pov, a son of one of Hun Sen’s sisters, nephew of Prime Minister Hun Sen was involved in the stabbing of two Japanese tourists in downtown Phnom Penh. The two injured were beaten and stabbed with bottles of chilli and soy sauce. ^

5. Nim Pisey: another nephew of Hun Sen, fired several shots at another night club in the city, injuring two people. He was released a week later. ^

According to AP: It wasn’t the first time that Hun Sen’s relatives have had run-ins with the law. Two of Hun Sen’s nephews—Hun To and Hun Chea, both sons of the prime minister’s elder brothers—were accused of involvement in a December 2001 shootout at a shopping center in the capital. The nephews were jailed briefly, but a court later released them, saying investigators had insufficient evidence to support charges that they possessed guns and were involved in the shooting.

Hun Sen Nephew Charged with Murder

In November 2003, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen's nephew was arrested on murder charges for allegedly shooting to death two people after a car crash that left one person dead, police said. Nim Sophea, 22, was arrested at about 2:30am just north of Phnom Penh on charges of causing a traffic accident and murder, according to a warrant signed by judge Hing Thirith. He was taken to a municipal court, where he will be questioned. Nim Sophea is the son of Hun Sen's sister Hun Sinath, a Foreign Ministry official. She is married to Nim Chan Dara, the undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who until recently was the ambassador to Myanmar. [Source: AP, November 26, 2003]

"We have determined that Nim Sophea was the shooter, but Nim Sophea himself has claimed to the [police] that he did not shoot, but that he was the one who tried to stop his friend who was shooting," said Heng Pov, a deputy police commissioner. The Oct. 27 shooting happened after a car racing three other vehicles down a Phnom Penh street lost control and crashed into a parked truck, killing one person and injuring two.

Nim Sophea, who was involved in the race, allegedly fired an automatic rifle wildly at passers-by after the accident, killing two people and injuring two, police said. His motive wasn't clear, but police believe he may have been angry or drunk. All those involved in the accident fled, and there were no arrests made at the time. Defense lawyer Dy Borima told reporters that his client has been detained for further investigation by the court. It is not clear when he will be freed or when the first court hearing will be held.

Dy Borima said Nim Sophea "was not the one who actually fired" the rifle, but in fact tried to wrest the gun from the gunman. "Once he got it, the gun had already stop firing. That is the true story," Dy Borima said. "He didn't want other people to get hurt. But when he was seen holding the gun, he was named as the shooter," he said.

However, Heng Pov, the police officer, said Nim Sophea was named by another man arrested in connection with the shooting. That man, Than Chamroeun, has been charged with causing a traffic accident that resulted in death. Nim Sophea's younger brother, Nim Chan Tana, was also summoned on Tuesday to the municipal court. It wasn't clear why he was summoned, but it's believed that he was involved in the car race, Heng Pov said.

This wasn't the first time that Hun Sen's relatives have had run-ins with the law. They have been arrested and held in the past for acts of violence, but are generally released later without facing much punishment.

In March 2004, AP reported: “Prime Minister Hun Sen’s nephew was found guilty today of unintentional murder for fatally shooting two people following a car race on the streets of the Cambodian capital last October. Nim Sophea had been charged with murder, but Judge Tan Senarong convicted him of the lesser charge of unintentional murder and sentenced him to three years in prison. Half of Nim Sophea’s sentence was suspended and he will spend five years on probation, said Tan Senarong. The judge said Nim Sophea’s friend, Som Doeun, was the shooter, and convicted Som Doeun—a fugtive who is still at large—of intentional murder in the shootings and sentenced him in absentia to ten years in prison. [Source: Ker Munthit, Associated Press, March 11, 2004

The trial resumed after two months of delay. It was adjourned two times in January, once when the defendant said he felt sick and again when the judge ruled the investigation was incomplete. Reporters were not allowed into the courtroom but they could overhear some of the testimony through a window, including Nim Sophea’s denial of the charges. Nim Sophea testified that Som Doeun was the gunman. "I shouted, ‘Doeun, don’t shoot, you may hit someone.’ Then I managed to wrestle the gun from him," he said. In his closing statement, Dy Borima asked the judge to give Nim Sophea a light sentence for his "recklessness." "My client had no intention whatsoever to cause the death of anyone—not at all. But he may have accidentally caused the gun to go off when he tried to grab it from Doeun," Dy Borima said. The October shooting happened after Nim Sophea and his friends allegedly raced their cars through the streets of Phnom Penh. One of the vehicles crashed into a parked truck.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: Documentation Center of Cambodia,, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism of Cambodia, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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