Hun Sen shows knack for staying in power

Cambodia strongman a Machiavellian figure

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PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — President Obama arrived in Cambodia on Monday having just won four more years in office, but that is nothing compared with his host, Hun Sen.

The 60-year-old Cambodian prime minister has held power since Ronald Reagan was in the White House, and says he’s not stepping down until he is 90.

Hun Sen is known as one of Asia’s most Machiavellian politicians, with a knack for making sure his rivals end up in jail or in exile.

A laudatory biography is subtitled “Strongman of Cambodia,” and some would say that’s putting it mildly.

Through his country’s civil wars, a U.N. peace process and several elections, the onetime communist cadre has always managed to come out on top.

Over the past decade, he also has overseen modest economic growth and stability in a country beset by poverty and nearly destroyed by the Khmer Rouge’s “killing fields.”

Mr. Obama made the first visit by a U.S. president to Cambodia because it was hosting the annual East Asia Summit.

He went straight from the airport to a meeting with Hun Sen that White House officials described as tense, with Mr. Obama emphasizing his concerns about Cambodia’s human rights situation.

According to U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, Hun Sen defended his record, telling the president that Cambodia has a unique set of circumstances that influence its policies and practices, and he expressed a desire to deepen his country’s ties with the U.S.

Hun Sen “is intelligent, combative, tactical, and self-absorbed,” said historian David Chandler, a Cambodia expert at Australia’s Monash University and a critic of Hun Sen’s rule.

‘He dares and wins’

These days, Hun Sen has styled himself as an elder statesman, and he is anxious to win international respectability to go along with the economic growth.

Despite concerns about his autocratic style and human rights lapses, Hun Sen has managed to keep flowing the international aid that still accounts for a major part of Cambodia’s national budget.

He also has apparent populist appeal. A poll of Cambodians taken in December 2011 by the International Republican Institute — a nonprofit organization that promotes democracy around the world — found that 81 percent of some 2,000 respondents said Cambodia is “generally headed in the right direction.”

Lao Mong Hay, an independent political analyst in Cambodia, thinks the secret to his success is simple: “Who dares, wins. He dares and he wins.”

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