Autopsy of a Cambodian Election

How Hun Sen Rules

Loyal opposition: Sam Rainsy with lawmakers in Phnom Penh, August 2014. Samrang Pring / Courtesy Reuters

Khmer New Year is the closest thing Cambodia has to a High Holiday, and in April, Prime Minister Hun Sen celebrated it in style with his fiercest opponent. During a festival at the ancient temples of Angkor, he and Sam Rainsy ate together from a gigantic cake of sticky rice weighing more than four metric tons—a Guinness World Record. It was an uncanny scene, not least because the last time Sam Rainsy had made a major public appearance at Cambodia’s most glorious site, in September 2013, it was to call Hun Sen a cheat and a usurper.

On that day, Sam Rainsy and 55 members-elect of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party were boycotting the inaugural session of the new National Assembly to protest alleged fraud in the recent general election, which the CNRP had officially lost by a small margin. With the ancestral temples bearing witness in the background, they called for an investigation, vowing “not to betray the will of the people.”

Cambodian politics appeared to be at an inflection point then, after years of civil war, military repression, totalitarianism, foreign occupation, an international trusteeship, and de facto one-party rule. By the government’s own tally of the votes, Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) had lost about one-quarter of its seats in the National Assembly. For months afterward, tens of thousands of Cambodians, led by the CNRP, took to the streets to pillory Hun Sen and ask him to resign. Yet today, the opposition cannot seem to get enough of rapprochement, touting a “culture of dialogue”—a phrase it repeats like a mantra—so far with little to show for it.

Has Hun Sen done it again? He has been Cambodia’s prime minister for 30 years, in spite of his unseemly political origins. A one-time Khmer Rouge commander who defected, he was put in power in 1979 by Vietnam, Cambodia’s historical enemy, after it toppled Pol Pot’s regime. Hun Sen has remained in place after

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