A PM with popular appeal at home despite the international community’s doubts

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Cambodia’s Hun Sen is known as one of Asia’s most Machiavellian politicians, with a knack for making sure his rivals end up in jail or in exile.

Through his country’s civil wars and several elections, the one-time communist cadre has always managed to come out on top. Over the last decade, he has also overseen modest economic growth in a country plagued by poverty and nearly destroyed by the Khmer Rouge.

Hun Sen “is intelligent, combative, tactical, and self-absorbed,” says historian David Chandler, a Cambodia expert at Australia’s Monash University and a critic of Hun Sen’s rule.

These days, Hun Sen has styled himself as an elder statesman, and is anxious to win international respectability. Despite concerns over his autocratic style and human rights lapses, he has managed to keep international aid flowing.

He also has apparent populist appeal and many Cambodians still credit him with dragging their country out of the abyss into which it had fallen under the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s.

Hun Sen initially fought with the Khmer Rouge against a pro-American government – he lost an eye in combat. But he defected to Vietnam in 1977 and accompanied the Vietnamese invasion to remove the Khmer Rouge. By 1985, he had been named prime minister.

He has made China his key ally, with Beijing happy to pour in aid and investment for a reliable political partner.

As Hun Sen put it ahead of the last election in 2008: “I wish to state it very clearly this way: No-one can defeat Hun Sen. Only Hun Sen alone can defeat Hun Sen.”