BANGKOK, Thailand -- When Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen received
his AstraZeneca vaccination shot, he suddenly felt invulnerable and
vowed to rule indefinitely.
Hun Sen is already one of the world's longest ruling prime ministers,
confident his successor will be his son Hun Manet who is a West Point
graduate, or Finance Minister Aun Pornmoniroth.
The vaccination shot against COVID-19 he received on March 4 may delay
"I will not die anytime soon. And now that my body is vaccinated, I
will not easily die," Hun Sen, 68, announced after receiving an
AstraZeneca injection at Calmette Hospital in the capital Phnom Penh.
"I will rule until a point that I feel I no longer want to rule."
The U.S. perceives Hun Sen as dangerously pro-China because he allows
major Chinese investment and infrastructure projects, enabling Beijing
to extend its reach into Southeast Asia.
Cambodia is simultaneously embroiled in a harsh crackdown against Hun
Sen's political opponents, enforced by prison sentences and fueled by
allegations of coup plots.
On March 1, Phnom Penh's Municipal Court sentenced nine former
Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) leaders in absentia for an
"attempt to commit a felony" and "attack and endanger institutions of
the Kingdom of Cambodia."
The most prominent of the fugitive opposition leaders is Sam Rainsy
who received a 25-year prison sentence, while the other eight received
similar punishment. They denied the charges.
"Troubled by sentences today targeting political opposition leaders in
Cambodia, particularly given a lack of due process," U.S. Ambassador
to Cambodia W. Patrick Murphy responded on Twitter.
The aristocratic Mr. Rainsy was already dodging a 15-year prison
sentence for "inciting military personnel to disobedience" in 2017.
While sheltering in France, he was convicted of other crimes including
a race-baiting, forged treaty erasing the Cambodian-Vietnamese border.
In 1998, then-U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia Kenneth Quinn denied Mr.
Rainsy's allegations that Washington was blocking a FBI investigation
into a 1997 grenade attack in Phnom Penh which killed more than 20
people and injured 100, including one American.
Despite Cambodia's political confrontations, the U.S. is keen to have
good relations with Hun Sen so American businesses remain welcome in
the laisse-faire capitalist economy.
"Who hasn't dreamed of owning a classic @harleydavidson motorcycle? I
stopped by their Phnom Penh showroom today to see the iconic American
brand," Ambassador Murphy tweeted in September.
He displayed photographs of himself clad in a padded black leather
jacket accented by a stars-and-stripes patterned tie, astride a
Milwaukee, Wisconsin-built Harley in their showroom.
Simultaneously in September, the U.S. Treasury Office used the
Magnitsky Act to sanction a Chinese government-owned real estate
company for starting to build a seaport, airport runway and holiday
resort at Dara Sakor on Cambodia's southern coast.
Then-U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo cited unconfirmed "credible
reports" that Beijing was plotting to use the multi-billion-dollar
facilities "to host military assets."
Beijing and Phnom Penh denied the allegation and said the Union
Development Group's project was for civilian use.
The U.S. action "not only undermines legitimate business interests,
but is a complete violation of Cambodia’s sovereignty," China's
embassy in Cambodia said.
Hun Sen's successor is widely expected to be his eldest son, Army
Commander Hun Manet, 43, who is empowered to control the military if a
conflict erupts, and also holds elite political positions.
His father however also indicated Finance Minister Aun Pornmoniroth
could be the next prime minister.
"Khmer-service broadcasting of foreign radio stations is trying to
smear the Hun family for building a dynastic rule to transfer powers
to the generations of prime minister’s children and grandchildren,”
said ruling Cambodian People's Party spokesman Sok Eysan, according to
a Voice of America report on March 4.
"We observe that this effort [to groom Hun Manet] is underway," said
political commentator Meas Nee said. "We do not know when."
American warplanes heavily bombed Cambodia during the late 1960s and
early 1970s, killing hundreds of thousands of Cambodians in
Washington's regional Vietnam War.
Hun Sen was a regiment commander in Pol Pot's anti-U.S. Khmer Rouge
guerrillas at the time.
They achieved victory in 1975 against the U.S.-backed Lon Nol regime
while defeated U.S. forces retreated in panic.
Hun Sen defected from the Khmer Rouge in 1977 and sought sanctuary in
neighboring Vietnam, fearing Pol Pot's paranoid internal purges.
More than one million Cambodians perished under Pol Pot's ultra-Maoist regime.
In 1978, Vietnamese forces toppled Pol Pot's regime, installed Hun Sen
as Cambodia's foreign minister, and occupied the ravaged Southeast
country before exiting in 1989.
After becoming prime minister in 1985, Hun Sen's track record included
bloody battles to remain in power, targeting Cambodian political
rivals and remnants of Khmer Rouge in the jungles.
Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American foreign correspondent
reporting from Asia since 1978. Excerpts from his new nonfiction book,
"Rituals. Killers. Wars. & Sex. -- Tibet, India, Nepal, Laos, Vietnam,
Afghanistan, Sri Lanka & New York" are available at