Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

National and World

November 19, 2012

Obama meets with Cambodia's longtime 'strongman'

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — President Barack Obama arrived in Cambodia on Monday having just won four more years in office, but that is nothing compared to his host, Hun Sen. The 60-year-old Cambodian prime minister has held power since Ronald Reagan was in the White House, and says he's not stepping down until he is 90.

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. A laudatory biography is subtitled "Strongman of Cambodia," and some would say that's putting it mildly.

Yet, through his country's civil wars, a U.N. peace process 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 and stability in a country plagued by desperate poverty and nearly destroyed under the Khmer Rouge "killing fields" regime.

Obama is making the first visit ever by a U.S. president to Cambodia because it is hosting the annual East Asia Summit. But White House aides said the president would also raise human rights concerns with Hun Sen.

Obama went straight from the airport to the Peace Palace, the site of the summit, for a meeting with Hun Sen.

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 he is anxious to win international respectability to go along with the economic growth. Despite concerns over his autocratic style and human rights lapses, the canny Hun Sen has managed to keep flowing the international aid that still accounts for a major part of Cambodia's national budget.

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