Hun Sen's reputation for violence owes much to the fact that he staged a 1997 coup against his own coalition government. Forces loyal to him defeated those of his co-prime minister — whose party had actually won elections four years previously — putting Hun Sen once again in full control.
By hook or crook, he has remained in power ever since, winning several elections.
In recent years, Hun Sen's opponents have been more likely to stand before a judge than stare down the barrel of a gun, human rights groups say.
Last month, a court sentenced 71-year-old Mam Sonando, owner of a radio station that is one of the country's few free media voices, to 20 years in prison on insurrection charges that critics say were trumped up to silence him.
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy — the sole Cambodian politician with the charisma and resources to present any real challenge to Hun Sen — is in self-imposed exile to avoid 12 years in prison from convictions critics say represented similar political persecution.
Unless Hun Sen sees an advantage to having him pardoned, Sam Rainsy will likely be shut out of next year's general election and his party will lose its best campaigner.
Economic development is a particular point of pride for Hun Sen's government, bearing in mind the low point growth started from — the Khmer Rouge had even abolished the use of money.
Cabinet spokesman Phay Siphan points out that Cambodia has experienced steady growth for the past 10 years, and expects to attain a per-capita income topping $1,000 in 2013.
He calls Hun Sen "the right man at the right time" for a transition to "free markets and multiparty liberal democracy." The government has passed Cambodia's first anti-corruption law, Phay Siphan said, and now requires the disclosures of officials' assets.
That law, though, has not stopped rampant family business dealings, cronyism and corruption. Opposition politicians and watchdog groups such as Global Witness accuse Hun Sen of overseeing the selloffs of the country's forests to rapacious logging companies — displacing masses of small farmers.
"Cambodia today is a country for sale," says Mu Sochua, a lawmaker from Sam Rainsy's opposition Cambodian National Rescue party.
But opponents and activists have little power to change the government, and even Hun Sen may be as beholden to his nation's economic interests as he is in control of them. "I'm not so sure he is their master or their puppet," says analyst Lao Mong Hay.
Even so, few doubt the outcome when Hun Sen faces a general election next year.
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."
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