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Hun Sen plays global politics with election - Kavi Chongkittavorn

The international community, through the United Nations, helped Cambodia to organise its first and only "free and fair" elections in 1993. It was a wonderful moment for a country emerging from civil war, which has confidently moved forward ever since. Cambodia has been very much on its own, with up and down political contours. This past Sunday, Cambodia held its sixth election, with the Cambodian People's Party winning the majority of seats.

This time, the international community is no longer in the same mood, filled with beautiful dreams about electoral power in a democracy. Sunday's poll was branded a sham because there were no credible opposition parties in the contest. The 19 opposition parties did not have the same political weight as the outlawed Cambodia National Rescue Party. With a voter turnout of 80.49%, 10% more than the previous election, Hun Sen can now claim he has a mandate to rule for another term.

The measures and actions taken by the government since the 2013 election, in which the ruling party nearly lost power, to win Sunday's poll were well-documented, but more should have been said about Hun Sen's efforts to bring in all of Cambodia's major powers to play realpolitik.

Hun Sen relished every moment he was under attack by the West because it further empowered him in the eyes of commoners. His criticism of the United States and the European Union showed how confident Hun Sen has become after more than three decades in power. He knew how to use to his benefit the West's inconsistency in policies and implementation, as Western leaders face their own rules of law and democratic problems.

Several countries refused to send their Phnom Penh-based diplomats to observe the election for fear of signalling their support. Nonetheless, this unfree and unfair election was peaceful and went smoothly. It remains to be seen how moderate countries like Japan, South Korea, India and Asean members will react to its outcome. What they say will have very little impact on Hun Sen's leadership but will serve as a barometer of how they plan to engage with Hun Sen.

What Hun Sen cares most about as he enters a fourth decade of power is not the electoral victory. Deep in his heart, he wishes to leave behind a legacy for future generations positing himself as the founding father of a new Cambodia, which has racked up 7% growth for over a decade.

Lately, video and radio documentaries about his life and work have started being broadcast in an effort to raise public awareness of his achievements. He is aware of the criticism of his political behaviour by the West but he could not care less. However, even the smallest insult to the quality of his leadership by any Cambodian would bring a severe response. Hun Sen hopes that one day his stature would be on a par with that of former King Norodom Sihanouk, recognised as the founding father of Cambodia on its independence in 1953.

It is an open secret that Hun Sen has actually followed in the footsteps of Sihanouk in pursuing Cambodia's long-held "strictly neutral" diplomacy. But at that time it was twisted toward the region's dominant communist partners. During the Sihanouk-run government, which ruled from 1955 to 1970, Cambodia, as a newly independent country with a versatile and charming leader, maintained a high profile in international affairs amidst the Indochina War. Like Sihanouk, Hun Sen has a penchant for challenging the West by playing it off against its key opponents.

Hun Sen dreads the foreign media calling him a dictator. He wants to be seen as a benevolent strongman.

In Cambodia, ordinary people have a binocular view of the region's longest-reigning leader. Those old enough to remember the horror of the Khmer Rouge have watched the war-torn country's economic growth. They credit Hun Sen with raising the country's standard of living, upgrading it from one of the world's poorest countries to a developing nation with an annual per capita income of well over US$1,300 (around 43,300 baht).

However, the millennial generation, aged 18-25, which was born and has grown up when Cambodia was at peace, has mixed feelings. The majority want to see their lives continue undisturbed under the current administration, but others are young graduates looking for new jobs generated by new investment.

For instance, young graduates are learning Chinese to take advantage of the influx of Chinese capital. In the early 1990s, Thai and English were popular among students, but now there are groups of young people who want a better rule of law and an open society.

For Hun Sen, the election should further strengthen his grip on power in the ruling CPP. Now he will have sufficient time to prepare for the handover of power to his two sons, Hun Maneth and Hun Mani. Other comrades in arms who fought by his side in war and peacetime are not happy with such a trend. Hun Sen knows that, for now, he is the only leader who can reign both internally and externally.

Externally, Hun Sen has the best performance in engaging the world's major powers, which are eyeing Cambodia because of his maverick leadership. China and Russia supported Sunday's election, while the US and EU tried to discredit and condemn it. But the criticism made no difference.

Asean, Japan and Australia are pursuing an extremely cautious, diplomatic approach and are caught between these two opposing sides. Asean has never had a dull moment since Cambodia joined the regional bloc in October 1999. Hun Sen knew Asean like the proverbial back of his hand. During its first decade, Cambodia was the group's catalyst, as Phnom Penh had the most open economy among the new members, which also included Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar.

In terms of political development, Cambodia at that time had strong opposition parties, vibrant civil society organisations and a grassroots movement, thanks to the foundations laid by the United Nations. These early political and social movements helped to distinguish Cambodia from the other former Indochinese countries in attracting foreign aid and long-term assistance to help alleviate poverty and end illiteracy.

Most importantly, they were sympathetic to the ruling CPP, knowing well the difficulties of rehabilitating and reconciling the country after what it had gone through under the genocidal Khmer Rouge.

Within Asia, Japan faces a huge dilemma in whether to accept the outcome of the election. Tokyo has treated Hun Sen with respect, recognising his contribution to Cambodia's development. Despite tremendous pressure from its Western allies, Japan continues to engage the ruling party and supported the election. Japan has been active throughout the past three decades in assisting Cambodia's economic and social development.

In the absence of an international aid consortium, China is playing a bigger role now in addition to trade and investment. Japan is wise not to follow the road taken by the West. Cambodia needs both Japan and China as key development partners to provide a balanced approach to development and investment.

Cambodia's economic growth has been propelled by China's direct investment and tourism. Its growing influence in Cambodia is one reason why the West has been paying so much attention to Hun Sen's political longevity. Cambodia's strategic imperative will continue as the world's major powers compete for regional support.