Phnom Penh: Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has run the nation with an iron grip for over two decades, ruthlessly undercutting rivals since his days in the feared Khmer Rouge.
He lost an eye as a guerrilla in the 1970s but later abandoned the movement in his drive for power, and that is unlikely to end when Cambodia goes to the polls in Sunday’s general election.
Royalist Funcinpec Party leader, princess Norodom Arun Rasmey greets supporters during their last rally in Phnom Penh
The 55-year-old premier, in power 23 years already, has vowed to remain as Cambodia’s head of state until he is 90 and has been on top so long that many fear the country will collapse if he is suddenly removed.
So confident, will not camapign for re-election
Such is his confidence, with his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) expected to romp to victory, that he has taken the unusual step of not campaigning for his re-election.
Hun Sen’s presence is felt everywhere. His tough line in a border spat with Thailand over an ancient temple, accusing Bangkok of threatening regional peace, has only strengthened the profile of a man who styles his party as Cambodia’s liberator from the Khmer Rouge.
Typical Camobodian everyman
To rural villagers, Hun Sen is also the Cambodian everyman. His sharp, populist wit and humble upbringing make him one of their own. He often veers from prepared remarks -- launching into coarsely-worded rants against phantom coups, arrogant foreigners or international demands for reform.
Born the third of six children to peasant farmers in central Cambodia, Hun Sen moved to the capital Phnom Penh at age 12, where he was so poor he was forced to live in a Buddhist pagoda while attending school.
When Cambodia fell into civil war in 1970, he became a foot soldier for what later emerged as the Khmer Rouge -- the genocidal regime behind Cambodia’s killing fields.
Opposed Khymer Rouge in 1975
Hun Sen says he opposed the Khmer Rouge as early as 1975. But he remained with the movement, losing an eye in the fighting and rising to the rank of deputy regional commander.
A Cambodian soldier, right, carries a B-40 rocket launcher as he walks past a Thai soldier outside a Buddhist pagoda occupied by Thai soldiers near Preah Vihear temple in Preah Vihear province, Cambodia
He married field nurse Bun Rany in a mass ceremony in 1976, but fled a year later to Vietnam as the regime that killed up to two million people was consumed by its own paranoia, purging thousands.
Hun Sen returned in 1978 with other Cambodian defectors and Vietnamese troops who pushed the Khmer Rouge into the country’s far northwest, where fighting lasted for another two decades.
Became world’s youngest PM in 1985
He quickly rose to the top of the Hanoi-installed government of the 1980s, becoming the world’s youngest prime minister in 1985. As his country emerged from conflict, he abandoned the communist dogma of his Vietnamese patrons, embracing the free market and seeking out alliances with more powerful nations, wooing both China and the United States.
Garment exports and tourism have brought double-digit economic growth to one of the world’s poorest countries, but Hun Sen’s administration is mired in corruption and he is often accused of trampling basic rights to keep his grip on power.
In 1993, he manhandled victory away from the country’s royalists following Cambodia’s first elections, which were backed by the United Nations.
He secured a power-sharing deal with the royalists, but ultimately ousted them in a bloody 1997 coup. Hundreds of people were killed in the run-up to elections the following year. Protests against Hun Sen’s victory were put down violently.
The last national election in 2003 was far less violent, but plunged the kingdom into a year of political stalemate as parties wrangled over forming a coalition. This year’s campaign is much calmer than the past -- possibly because Hun Sen no longer faces any major rivals.