Vietnamese troops withdrew from Cambodia in 1989 after Hanoi occupied the country for 10 years, installed Hun Sen as foreign minister, and soon promoted him to prime minister 38 years ago.  1989_09-phnom_penh-cambodia-vietnam_withdraws©copyright-by-richard_s_ehrlich-IMG_0094ps3cpcr.jpg

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen won reelection on July 23, as expected, extending his 38 years in power by monopolizing politics, jailing rivals, silencing free speech, and winning all 125 parliament seats.

"We've won a landslide," said Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party (CPP) spokesperson Sok Eysan hours after the polls closed.

The only suspense after the election are cliff-hangers -- how quickly will Mr. Hun Sen install his West Point-trained son as next prime minister, and how deep will they expand Cambodia's already extensive diplomatic, economic, and military ties with China.

"Any improvement in (U.S.-Cambodian) relations depends in large part on whether Western governments are willing to accept a less democratic baseline for Cambodia," Prime Minister Hun Sen's son, four-star Gen. Hun Manet, said hours before the polls, according to Bloomberg.

Heir apparent Mr. Hun Manet, 45, was a first-time candidate in the July 23 election to the National Assembly, representing his father's ruling CPP in the capital Phnom Penh.

If he is soon named prime minister, Mr. Hun Sen is expected to help rule from the background using his 38 years in power to detect and destroy perceived political threats.

Mr. Hun Sen depends on the military, police, investors and others to support his regime and enforce his edicts.

His son is Cambodia's first West Point military academy graduate. 

After West Point, Mr. Hun Manet became Royal Cambodian Army commander, and armed forces deputy commander-in-chief, plus deputy commander of his father's bodyguards, and head of Cambodia's counterterrorism unit.

He became a four-star general in March.

Mr. Hun Manet earned a New York University master's degree in economics and received a PhD in economics at England's Bristol University.

It remains to be seen if Mr. Hun Manet's international and economic interests will significantly shift Cambodia away from traditional ties with China and allow its former enemy, America, greater involvement Cambodia.

"At the Win-Win Monument [in Phnom Penh], there's a sculpted relief that shows Hun Sen, Hun Manet, and [China's leader] Xi Jinping first meeting together -- Xi being introduced to Manet," Arizona State University professor Sophal Ear, a Cambodia-born author on the Southeast Asian country, said in an interview.

"This is how important that moment was, it's carved in stone.

"The U.S. is hoping the son will take the country in a different direction. Cambodia's political culture makes it very hard that change would happen this way. Too much is at stake.

"China is knee-deep in all aspects. Politics? It is a major backer of Cambodia's regime internationally, a booster of the regime," Mr. Sophal Ear said.

Mr. Hun Sen's remarkable, bloody rise from a half-blinded guerrilla in Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge during the U.S.-Vietnam War to become one of the world's longest-ruling leaders, impressed many Cambodians who voted for him and his CPP's candidates.

Voters had no real choice because only 17 small political parties also ran in the National Assembly elections, including eight registered in all 25 constituencies.

Most of the 17 parties were small or new or pro-Hun Sen.

It was illegal to boycott the election or destroy paper ballots.

After the polls closed, officials suspected some "spoiled ballots" may be an expression of anti-Hun Sen sentiment.

The biggest opposition party, the liberal Candlelight Party which favors democracy and human rights, was banned from the polls because it did not submit required registration documents.

Opposition leader Kem Sokha is meanwhile trapped under house arrest undergoing a 27-year sentence for treason amid allegations that he plotted with foreigners to oust Mr. Hun Sen.

Sam Rainsy, an opposition figure and political conspiracy theorist with a credibility problem, has been hiding for nearly a decade in self-exile in France, dodging prison sentences after several convictions -- all of which he denies.

More than 80 percent of the nine million Cambodians eligible to cast ballots did so in the Southeast Asian nation with a median age of about 26 years old.

Elephants transported ballot boxes to some isolated voting sites in forests. 

An official stained the index finger of each voter with purple ink, to prevent double voting before polls closed at 3 p.m. Phnom Penh time (4 p.m. Washington).

Voting is not required in Cambodia.

Peer pressure may have resulted in some ballots being reluctantly cast by unenthusiastic voters who worried that people would see their unstained finger the next day and know they didn't support Mr. Hun Sen's CPP.

It was a "farce of an 'election' in Cambodia," said Phil Robertson, Bangkok-based deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch in New York.

"The election looks more like what you would see in Saddam's Iraq," Council of Foreign Relations' Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia Joshua Kurlantzick wrote on the council's website on July 6.

"Cambodia benefits from the world focusing on other issues from global economic challenges to the war in Ukraine to China-U.S. rivalry, among others," Mr. Kurlantzick said.

In 2018, Mr. Hun Sen did a similar election performance and won all 125 seats in the National Assembly after courts dissolved the main opposition's front.

Since 1993, he has won all six national elections which were first sponsored by the United Nations.

The U.S. heavily bombed Cambodia during the Vietnam war, but Mr. Hun Manet later became impressed with the American way of life.

Americans enjoy "the freedom and opportunity to do anything they want," Mr. Hun Manet told his father's biographers in 2003, according to Reuters.

In the U.S., "tolerance for diversity" and "looking at things from different angles and perspectives" are allowed, he said.

But that form of democracy in Cambodia can occur only when the nation and its people have a better level of development, because poverty and ignorance allow corruption, he said.

Many Cambodians are drowning in household debt amid increased fuel costs and low wages.

Critics claim Prime Minister Hun Sen and his more than two dozen relatives appear unusually wealthy with investments in Cambodia's energy sector, telecoms, mining and trading companies.

During the past few decades, Hun Sen dramatically increased relations with China while remaining frosty and only occasionally friendly with the U.S.

China's advantages post-election include its geographic proximity and heavy investment in Cambodia's development projects, private industries, entertainment, and other enterprises.

Unlike the U.S. which supports human rights and Cambodia's pro-democracy groups' freedom of expression, China does not publicly shame or criticize Mr. Hun Sen for his repressive politics and other domestic policies.

As a result, he agreed to Beijing funding, developing, and using Ream Naval Base on Cambodia's southern coast along the Gulf of Thailand which opens to the South China Sea where the U.S. and China compete for military, territorial, access, and offshore rights, including undersea resources.

Hun Sen's welcoming of Chinese money, companies, and projects have transformed the skylines of Cambodia's capital Phnom Penh and other cities.

Hun Sen is reportedly allowing China to deepen Ream's port so bigger ships, including military vessels, can dock for maintenance, and construct a dry dock which can be drained so a ship's hull can be repaired.

Cambodia and China deny allegations that Hun Sen is allowing Chinese to refurbish Ream, and insisted the port would be open to all countries.

Mr. Hun Sen, 70, survived U.S. bombs, communist Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge, Vietnam's occupation, and post-war clashes.

During the 1970s, Hun Sen proudly considered anti-U.S. Khmer Rouge guerrillas as "a national, patriotic movement, and therefore I was also in that movement," Hun Sen said in 1989.

"I was only a simple Khmer Rouge."

Nearly two million Cambodians perished under Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge from executions, torture, starvation, banishment, and other policies.

Hun Sen said he was permanently blinded in one eye during the final fight when the Khmer Rouge won in April 1975 at the end of the regional U.S.-Vietnam War.

Mr. Hun Sen was Pol Pot's Eastern Zone regimental commander, according to historian Nayan Chanda.

Mr. Hun Sen defected in 1977 to avoid internal Khmer Rouge purges, and defected to Vietnam which politically groomed him.

In January 1979, Vietnam invaded Cambodia, chased Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge fighters into the jungle, and installed Hun Sen as Cambodia's foreign minister.

In 1985, during Vietnam's nearly 11-year occupation, Hanoi promoted him to prime minister.


Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American foreign correspondent reporting from Asia since 1978. Excerpts from his new books, "Rituals. Killers. Wars. & Sex. -- Tibet, India, Nepal, Laos, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka & New York" and "Apocalyptic Tribes, Smugglers & Freaks" are available at