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Few Dare To Speak Against Hun Sen

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, right, talks with top leaders of his party before an event by the ruling Cambodian People's Party marking the 36th anniversary of the 1979 downfall of the Khmer Rouge regime at their party headquarters in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015.

While rights groups say abuse and corruption are hallmarks of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s 30 years in power, everyday Cambodians are less likely to do so. Some may be afraid to speak out against the premier on the record.

But at least some say they have seen development over the decades, especially in infrastructure, which had fallen to ruin under the Khmer Rouge and the decades of civil war that followed its collapse.

Sitting on a red Honda Wave scooter on a street in Phnom Penh, Lok Sok said he likes to think of the positive changes. “I can see a lot of development, for rice field workers, laborers—and also real estate,” he said.

Cambodia’s economy and infrastructure have improved in the last few decades. But critics say its democratic development has been slow in coming, and that basic human freedoms remain elusive for many: Violent crackdowns on protesters and jailings of dissidents have been hallmarks of the Hun Sen’s regime.

Fear of speaking against Hun Sen or his government is a natural feeling for many Cambodians. Those who have can find themselves arrested or jailed, beaten by police, or worse. In a lengthy report on Hun Sen’s decades in power, Human Rights Watch says Hun Sen “has ruled through violence and fear.”

“He has often described politics as a struggle to the death between him and all those who dare to defy him,” the group said in a statement this week. “For example, on June 18, 2005, he warned political opponents whom he accused of being ‘rebels,’ that ‘they should prepare coffins and say their wills to their wives.’”

“In a speech on August 5, 2009, he mimicked the triggering of a gun while warning critics not to use the word ‘dictatorship’ to describe his rule,” the group said. “On January 20, 2011, responding to the suggestion that he should be worried about the overthrow of a dictator in Tunisia at the time of the ‘Arab Spring,’ Hun Sen lashed out: ‘I not only weaken the opposition, I’m going to make them dead ... and if anyone is strong enough to try to hold a demonstration, I will beat all those dogs and put them in a cage.’”