By Erin Hale, DPA/Phnom Penh
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen received the Asean Lifetime Achievement Award as one of the bloc’s longest serving heads of government on Saturday evening, despite his past as a former Khmer Rouge commander during the 1970s.
The award, presented by the Malaysian think tank Asia Strategy and Leadership Institute, has previously been given to Southeast Asia’s longest-serving leaders, including Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew and Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad.
Hun Sen has ruled Cambodia under various titles for over 30 years.
Originally a commander in the communist Khmer Rouge party, which ruled Cambodian from 1975 to 1979 and attempted to create a racially pure, peasant utopia, killing more than a million people, he later defected to Vietnam during a period of internal purges in the late 1970s.
Hun Sen was later appointed as head of Vietnamese-occupied Cambodia, from 1985 until 1989, and refashioned himself as a democratic leader during the UN-led transition to democracy in 1991.
Hun Sen accepted the award at the think tank’s annual leadership forum, held in Vientiane, Laos, this year.
While separate from Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), the forum is supported by the regional bloc.
The choice of Hun Sen for the award raised some eyebrows in Cambodia, as many members of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party believe Hun Sen’s party may have rigged the last national election in 2013.
He also staged a coup in 1997, which resulted in his victory as prime minister in 1998.
“Asean is sometimes referred to as a club of autocrats. They seem to value being a long term leader as a mark of huge success to be desired,” says Ou Virak, who heads local think tank Cambodia Future Forum.
Cambodian academic Vannarith Chheang, a lecturer at the University of Leeds in Britain, said the award was logical given Hun Sen’s length of service, despite a less than democratic record.
“[The award] just reflects the long-serving state leadership regardless of political ideology and leadership type,” Chheang said.
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