NEAK LOEUNG, Cambodia – Hun Sen, Cambodia's tough and wily prime minister, marked 30 years in power Wednesday, one of just a handful of political strongmen worldwide who have managed to cling to their posts for three decades.
Since first taking up the job of prime minister at age 33, he has consolidated power with violence and intimidation of opponents that continue to draw criticism from human rights advocates. But he can also take some credit for bringing modest economic growth and stability in a country devastated by the communist Khmer Rouge's regime in the 1970s, which left some 1.7 million people dead from starvation, disease and executions.
"Hun Sen is one of the cleverest politicians Asia has ever seen," said Sebastian Strangio, author of a recent biography of the Cambodian leader.
In a speech marking the ceremonial completion of the country's longest, 2,200-meter (7,200-foot) Japanese-funded bridge across the Mekong River on Wednesday, the 62-year-old Hun Sen defended his record, saying that only he was daring enough to tackle the Khmer Rouge and help bring peace to Cambodia.
"If Hun Sen hadn't been willing to enter the tigers' den, how could we have caught the tigers?" he said. He acknowledged some shortcomings, but pleaded for observers to see the good as well as the bad in his leadership.
Born to a peasant family in east-central Cambodia, Hun Sen initially joined the Khmer Rouge against a pro-American government. He defected to Vietnam in 1977, and accompanied the Vietnamese invasion that toppled his former comrades in 1979.
The timely change of sides led to his being appointed foreign minister, then prime minister of the Vietnamese-supported regime in 1985. He has never left the top post despite being forced to temporarily accept the title of "co-prime minister" after his party came in second in a 1993 U.N.-supervised election. Four years later, he deposed his coalition partner in a bloody coup.
"He has brought stability and peace, but he has also brought so much inequality, corruption and frustration to millions as well," said Ou Virak, head of Future Forum, a Cambodian think tank. While many Cambodians are now better off, "far too many people, during a time of tremendous growth, are made poorer."
According to a new report by the New York-based group Human Rights Watch, Hun Sen "has been linked to a wide range of serious human rights violations: extrajudicial killings, torture, arbitrary arrests, summary trials, censorship, bans on assembly and association, and a national network of spies and informers intended to frighten and intimidate the public into submission."
Biographer Strangio noted that Hun Sen does not rely solely on his willingness to use force.
"For three decades he has outmaneuvered political opponents and international critics, while playing off the country's Western aid donors against a rising China," Strangio said in an email interview. "His long career has been marked by his incredible ideological flexibility — an uncanny ability to twist and bend with the political wind."
He said that Hun Sen was able to present his rule as the only guarantee against a return to chaos by manipulating hopes and fears of ordinary Cambodians.
In 2013 elections, it seemed Hun Sen's grip on power had been shaken when the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party mounted an unexpectedly strong challenge, winning 55 seats in the National Assembly and leaving Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party with 68. He stood fast against a potentially destabilizing boycott of parliament by the opposition, conceding very little while eventually winning the opposition's agreement to enter the legislature.
The Asia director at Human Rights Watch, Brad Adams, who authored the report, said "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."
A recent spate of politically motivated arrests and convictions means "Cambodia is in the process of reverting to a one-party state," the report said.
Associated Press writer Grant Peck in Bangkok contributed to this report.