Hun Sen

A Cambodian political leader, Hun Sen (born 1951) early in 1985, at the age of 33, became the then youngest premier of any country in the world.

Hun Sen was born the second son of a family of poor peasants on April 8, 1951, in a hamlet in Cambodia's southeastern Kompong Cham province, which borders Vietnam. The location of the area of his birth was to prove significant for his career in the 1970s, as it early on was to bring him in contact with nearby Vietnamese political and military leaders and their Cambodian allies.

Hun Sen's formal schooling was haphazard. Reportedly he received primary education in Phnom Penh while living with relatives. But he did not go beyond this, and instead was soon swept up as an adolescent participant in various revolutionary youth movements. These movements themselves reflected the turbulent power struggle among Cambodian communists, including Hanoi-oriented leaders, during the middle 1960s. This struggle culminated in the founding of the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK) in 1966. Hun Sen appears to have drifted between farming work with his family in Kompong Cham and underground organizational activity, including for a supposed "youth wing" of the party. The continued communist factional squabbling left Hun Sen relatively untainted. And, in any case, the establishment of the government of Marshal Lon Nol after the overthrow on March 18, 1970, of the longtime regime of Prince Norodom Sihanouk solidified the communist struggle. This solidification for the moment strengthened the common cause of communist Cambodian dissidents in or on the fringes of the CPK with the general leadership of Hanoi and its Cambodian followers.


Member of the Khmer Rouge

Already in late 1968 Hun Sen formally had joined the CPK, conventionally called the "Khmer Rouge." Cadre course training followed, and in subsequent years he was to distinguish himself in guerrilla combat against the U.S.-backed Lon Nol forces. Hun Sen is said to have lost his left eye and to have been severely wounded four more times in the fighting, which included the Khmer Rouge's Eastern Zone area of operations. This area included his home province of Kompong Cham.

On April 17, 1975, the victorious Khmer Rouge forces, having driven Lon Nol into exile and consolidated their hold on Phnom Penh and on most major Cambodian towns, proclaimed the birth of the state of "Democratic Kampuchea" (DK). By this time Hun Sen, though barely 24 years old, had risen to the rank of Khmer Rouge division commander. He was asked to participate in at least one of the major Khmer Rouge victory celebrations in Phnom Penh during April 1975, an indication that he was trusted by Pol Pot, Khieu Sampan, Ieng Sary, and other senior CPK and DK leaders.

This spirit of trust and amity was not to last long, however. Hun Sen returned to Kompong Cham as Khmer Rouge commander and senior CPK cadre while the Pol Pot holocaust designed to "cleanse" Cambodian society was being unleashed. The extent of Hun Sen's own involvement in the deliberate campaign of killing and maltreatment that was to cost a million Cambodian lives remains to be determined.


Break With Pol Pot

A number of factors influenced Hun Sen's position in the 1975-1977 period prior to his break with Pol Pot and the DK. Because of his limited formal education and youth, he had escaped the maniacal suspicion among the Pol Pot entourage of all those Cambodians who, because of their education or maturity, automatically were perceived as poisoned by the ideologies of the hated regimes of the past. Hun Sen's combat service also helped. But it was precisely in the Eastern Zone, particularly Kompong Cham, that underground Khmer Rouge opposition to the bloody "year zero" tactics of the Pol Pot regime first manifested itself.

This opposition centered around the older, Vietnamese influenced Cambodian communists and their younger followers, about 2,000 of whom had gone to Hanoi after the 1954 Geneva peace conference which had partitioned Vietnam and given separate status to Cambodia and Laos. They had seen little chance of developing the communist resistance in Cambodia at the time, and they largely returned to Cambodia only after Prince Norodom Sihanouk's fall in 1970 in order to ally themselves with Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge in the struggle against Lon Nol's regime. Though identified early with Pol Pot's CPK and its guerrillas, Hun Sen's posting in Kompong Cham through most of the 1970s and the proximity of Vietnamese communist cadres across the border in neighboring South Vietnam had their effect. Being too young and not senior enough in party affairs to be suspected by his Khmer Rouge mentors, Hun Sen escaped the purges of the older Vietnamese-oriented communists ordered by Pol Pot in the Eastern Zone after he had established his DK regime in Phnom Penh in 1975.

Mutual suspicion between the Cambodian communist factions continued to mount in the years after 1975, catching Hun Sen in the middle. This suspicion was fed by ancient Cambodian-Vietnamese ethnic hostility and by resentment felt by Cambodian communists who had not gone to Hanoi believing that the Socialist Republic of Vietnam unifying North and South Vietnam since 1975 meant to dominate Cambodia and Laos, in keeping with Ho Chi Minh's old dream of a single communist Indochina state. Perhaps well before September 24, 1977, Hun Sen had made a major irrevocable life decision. On that date, Khmer Rouge forces, on orders of Pol Pot, crossed into South Vietnam's Tay Ninh province hunting for suspected Vietnam sympathizers among CPK cadres. There is some, but not conclusive, evidence that Khmer Rouge forces already had gone on similar "hunting" missions in Tay Ninh during the months before this incursion.

If Hun Sen, even before that date, already quietly had decided to defect, the September incursion wholly committed him to cast his lot with his pro-Vietnamese party companions. In one press interview a decade later he was to declare that already early in 1977 he had refused Khmer Rouge command orders to arrest and search for suspected CPK comrades in his territory.

Along with other Eastern Zone Cambodian communist dissidents, Hun Sen now went to Hanoi, receiving further training (as he was to put it later) in "people's leadership." He also almost certainly supplied his Vietnamese mentors with information on Khmer Rouge tactical military intentions of "rectifying" the DK's long disputed southeastern border with Vietnam. He also joined a fellow former Eastern Zone Khmer Rouge division commander, Heng Samrin, in organizing a Vietnam-sponsored Kampuchean National Front for National Salvation (KNUFNS)—a shadow government and movement to replace Pol Pot's CPK and DK regime.

After a 110,000-man Vietnamese army invaded Cambodia on December 30, 1978, drove out the Pol Pot-controlled DK regime from Phnom Penh, and occupied virtually all of the country, most of the KNUFNS leadership reconstituted itself as the cabinet of a new People's Republic of Kampuchea (PRK), formally proclaimed in Phnom Penh on January 10, 1979. On that same date, Hun Sen became minister of foreign affairs of the PRK and a Politburo member of the new government's guiding political party, the Kampuchean People's Revolutionary Party (KPRP).


Hun Sen Becomes Premier

On December 24, 1984, the PRK's chairman of the council of ministers, Prime Minister Chan Sy, died while undergoing medical treatment in the Soviet Union. On January 14, 1985, the Eighth Session of the PRK National Assembly elected Hun Sen to the premiership. Toward the end of 1986 Hun Sen, in a gradual transfer, initially passed his foreign affairs minister's post over to KPRP Politburo member Kong Korm. However, by the first week of December 1987, in a general cabinet shake-up that reflected a leadership need for stronger and independent initiatives in economic development and foreign policy discussions, Hun Sen resumed the foreign minister's office along with his premiership. Hun Sen also was elected chairman of the PRK National Assembly at its January 1985 session.

Along with his membership in the Politburo, the Central Committee, and the secretariat of the KPRP, the joint cabinet seats of premier and foreign minister unquestionably have made Hun Sen the second most powerful figure in his government after head of state Heng Samrin. On April 30, 1989, there came a technical change in Hun Sen's position as the PRK formally changed its name to State of Cambodia. This name change was in accordance with a new peace strategy of inclusion, so as to broaden the appeal of the Heng Samrin-Hun Sen government to various opposition groups, among them the remnants of Pol Pot's DK and Khmer Rouge organization.

As premier, and for more than a decade also as foreign minister, Hun Sen showed remarkable political skills in retaining support—or at least not incurring strong hostility— among different factions in his party and government, including the older, Vietnam-oriented dissidents of the original Khmer Rouge who left Pol Pot; the hard-line, avowedly more "nationalistic," younger KPRP cadres suspicious of both Hanoi and foreign support from the USSR; a pro-Soviet faction around former premier Pen Sovan; and other lesser factions.

In the years from 1979 to 1983, Hun Sen's efforts primarily were designed to win as broad acceptance as possible for the PRK, not only among other communist regimes of the world, but also in the Third World generally. This strategy was designed, among other goals, to minimize the influence of China, which, alone among the major powers, continued to support Pol Pot's DK diplomatically and with military supplies. Hun Sen initially also emphasized the importance of close PRK political and military relations with Vietnam, but later joined Hanoi in approving the Vietnamese military withdrawal and in stressing Cambodia's need to be self-reliant. At the beginning of 1981, in part as a result of frequent visits to various world capitals by Hun Sen, the PRK regime had already secured official diplomatic recognition from some 30 countries and had neutralized much hostility in the Third World, although the PRK continued to be refused a seat in the United Nations as Cambodia's legitimate government.


The Long Search for Peace

After 1983 Hun Sen increasingly entered into dialogue with Indonesian and Thai officials and with other nations to find a Cambodian peace settlement. He helped defuse the potentially explosive Cambodian border conflict with Thailand between 1985 and 1987. But he continued to voice strong reservations at various international conferences over a possible interim United Nations regime in Cambodia, perhaps headed by Prince Norodom Sihanouk, pending general elections.

After June 1982 Hun Sen and his government faced the unification of major Cambodian opposition groups that stepped-up guerrilla attacks, including attacks by the 40,000-man Khmer Rouge. The vehicle of this combined opposition was the UN-and U.S.-recognized Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea (CGDK). At the same time, economic stagnation and international pressure also were compelling Vietnam to accelerate withdrawing forces from Cambodia. In an almost endless series of direct discussions between Hun Sen and Southeast Asian leaders on the implications of these developments, recognition grew that the PRK (State of Cambodia) represented the only real alternative to a probable return of the Khmer Rouge, whose guerrillas along the Thai border still were being supplied by China with the concurrence of some senior Thai military.

Hun Sen's policy became to widen this Southeast Asian, and indeed international, recognition of his regime as the only option other than the Khmer Rouge. By March 1986, in an agreement at Beijing, leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) accepted the need to include the PRK in a future Cambodian interim government. By August 1987 Hun Sen, in turn, had offered a "national reconciliation" proposal designed to include all opposition factions except the Khmer Rouge in the existing PRK government. During 1988-1990, however, frequent international conferences at Fère-en-Tardenois, near Paris in France, between Hun Sen and Sihanouk and two informal meetings in Jakarta attended by all the Cambodian factions, ASEAN, and some of the UN Security Council's permanent members failed to provide a desired consensus on a Cambodian peace settlement.

Finally, on October 23, 1991, all the warring factions agreed on a peace plan to share power under a Supreme National Council pending elections in 1993. Under UN supervision, the nation's administration was to be in the hands of Prince Sihanouk. The 1993 landmark elections yielded an impressive 90 percent voter turn-out, despite Khmer Rouge threats. The majority of the ballots were cast for King Sihanouk's royalist party, FUNCINPEC. Hun Sen and his Cambodian People's Party (CPP) used violence to intimidate competitors, duly recorded by the UN, but not prevented. The four provinces most dominated by the CPP threatened to secede, which would have initiated another civil war. Because the non-Communist parties lacked the military muscle to prevent this, a compromise was reached and a coalition government was the result. Hun Sen, representing the electoral losers, and Silhanouk's son Prince Ranariddh, representing the winners, became co-prime ministers.

The first two years of their collaborative form of government were relatively peaceful, marked by only the occasional spat. In 1995, they publicly announced their intention to stay together until 2010. At one point in 1996, Hun Sen said of his co-prime minister in an interview, "It is not a friendship but rather like brothers, although I am not a royal family member. He's older than me, I respect him, and our two families have good relations. So I consider him my elder brother. We enjoy an understanding with each other in our work." The specter of the 1998 elections seemed to fuel the infighting between Hun Sen and Ranariddh that escalated steadily in the months prior to a Hun Sen staged coup d'etat in early July 1997, a move he vehemently defended as legal and denied as ebing a coup. Hun Sen publicly announced that anyone who negotiates with the remaining hard-line Khmer Rouge rebels should be arrested. Ranariddh was negotiating with the Khmer Rouge, as Hun Sen had done the year before. Although Hun Sen was a onetime Khmer Rouge commander, he is reviled by his former comrades. Ranariddh, however, was living in exile and reportedly "desperately seeking" Khmer Rouge support to supplement his own army that is said to be smaller than Hun Sen's forces. Foreign Minister Ung Huot was elected to Ranariddh's post on July 30, 1997, in an election by what many consider an incomplete parliament due to the fact that many of Ranariddh's supporters had fled the country.

In keeping with present Cambodian practices, little is known officially of Hun Sen's private life. He was said to have married a fellow worker in the original CPK in 1972, and they had four children. In July 1997, Hun Sen revisited the site of the grave of his firstborn son, who died at birth 21 years prior. In late June 1997, Hun Sen dedicated a reconstructed school to his wife. Hun Sen's younger brother, Nun Nong, was head of the KPRP's provincial executive committee of Kompong Cham and also was a member of the national KPRP's Central Committee.


Further Reading on Hun Sen

There is no book, or even any published biographical article of any length, on Hun Sen in any language. Brief biographical sketches of Hun Sen based on a few official government handouts have appeared in the international press. See, for example, Washington Post, National Weekly Edition, June 26 and July 2, 1989. Other snippets of information on Hun Sen or his political affiliations from open sources are provided by the Asia Year-Book annuals (published by the Far Eastern Economic Review, Hong Kong) from 1980 onward; Ben Kiernan, "Origins of Khmer Communism," in Southeast Asian Affairs 1981 (Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore: 1981); Peter Schier, "Kampuchea in 1985," in Southeast Asian Affairs 1986; Nayan Chanda, Brother Enemy. The War After the War (1986); Michael Vickery, Kampuchea, Politics, Economics and Society (1986); and Elizabeth Becker, When the War Was Over: Cambodia's Revolution and the Voices of Its People (1986).