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But many critics say that too often what Hun Sen dares to do is use brute force and manipulation of the courts to maintain his hold on power.

Hun Sen’s violent and authoritarian rule over more than two decades has resulted in countless killings and other serious abuses that have gone unpunished,” New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a recent report. Labor organizers, politicians, journalists and environmentalists have been among those who have died violently over the years.

For all that, many Cambodians still credit Hun Sen with dragging their country out of the abyss into which it had fallen under the Khmer Rouge.

The communist regime came to power in the 1970s and engaged in a systematic genocide that left 1.7 million dead in its attempt to create a pure agrarian society.

By the time Vietnam invaded in 1979 to oust the regime, Cambodia was a broken shell of a country: Every social, political and cultural institution was in ruins.

More than a survivor

Born to a peasant family in east-central Cambodia, Hun Sen initially fought with the Khmer Rouge against a pro-American government. He lost an eye in combat.

But he defected to Vietnam in 1977 and accompanied the Vietnamese invasion. By 1985, he had been named prime minister.

Yet, for years after the Khmer Rouge regime fell, the U.S. continued to officially recognize its leaders, who had fled and resumed guerrilla warfare, as Cambodia’s legitimate representatives in the U.N.

That fact still rankles Hun Sen, who often raises it when feeling aggrieved by U.S. policy.

He has made China his key ally, with Beijing happy to provide aid and investment for a reliable political partner in Southeast Asia.

A sign on the exterior wall of Hun Sen’s Peace Palace government offices, where the summit is being held, welcomed the arrival of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, but no similar sign heralded Mr. Obama’s arrival.

Hun Sen’s reputation for violence owes much to the fact that he staged a 1997 coup against his own coalition government.

Forces loyal to him defeated those of his co-prime minister — whose party actually had won elections four years previously — putting Hun Sen once again in full control.

By hook or crook, he has remained in power ever since, winning several elections.

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