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Flying footwear, fawning ‘fans’ for rare Washington visit by Cambodia PM Hun Sen

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen, making his first visit to Washington, got a taste of the dissent he has completely crushed back home in his 36 years of rule when an émigré from the Southeast Asian nation threw a shoe at him as he greeted supporters in front of his hotel.

As the 69-year-old strongman prepared to meet supporters on the eve of a summit of U.S.-Southeast Asian leaders, a retired Cambodian soldier flung a shoe that whizzed by his head and missed him. The incident at the Willard Intercontinental Hotel on Wednesday was caught on video and went viral on social media.

“I feel so relieved and slept well, sleep better after I threw my shoe at Hun Sen’s head. I have intended to do this for a long time because I want him to be humiliated, nothing more than that,” Ouk Touch told RFA’s Khmer Service on Thursday at another protest.

He said Hun Sen’s bodyguards jumped toward him and attempted to beat him, but U.S. security officials intervened and urged him to leave the scene.

“My action, it was just throwing a shoe at Hun Sen, but Hun Sen threw grenades at Cambodian people, peaceful protesters. Hun Sen is a dictator, and he has killed many people, including my relatives,” said Touch, 72, a former soldier in the Cambodian army in the early 1970s.

The retiree and California resident was referring to an armed attack against Hun Sen’s elected coalition partners in 1997, one of two such violent attacks that helped him remain in power after failing to win elections. The 1997 attack killed 16 people and wounded 150, but the perpetrators have not been brought to justice.

Responding on Facebook to the shoe incident, Hun Sen’s son Hun called it “absolutely unacceptable,” adding: “Those extremists must not be tolerated.”

In February Cambodian opposition activist Sam Sokha was released after serving a four-year prison term for throwing her shoe at a poster of Hun Sen and sharing it on social media. She is among scores of activist jailed in a wide-ranging crackdown against opponents of Hun Sen, the media and civic society groups that begin in 2017.

Touch said he managed to talk his way into the gathering with a group of Hun Sen supporters that largely consisted of Cambodian officials and their relatives, businessmen with government projects and several people who told RFA their travel expenses to Washington was paid for, without elaborating on the source of funding.

“I’m so delighted that Cambodia has a hero, who liberated us from the genocide and we have peace for 30-40 years and people are living prosperously,” said one supporter, who said he was part of a group of 23 Cambodians who flew to Washington from Vancouver, Canada on Tuesday.

Hun Sen’s trip to Washington, his first such visit to the U.S. capital, is as chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a ten-country bloc whose leaders are holding a summit with U.S. President Joe Biden. The Cambodian leader will attend a dinner at the White House Thursday.

Aside from a handful of visits since 1999 to the United Nations in New York for annual meetings, Hun Sen has made very few trips to the U.S. He attended the West Point graduation ceremony of his son and designated heir Hun Manet in May 1999 and took part in the first U.S.-ASEAN summit hosted by former President Barack Obama in California in February 2016.

As rotating chair of ASEAN this year, Hun Sen’s suitability to lead outside efforts to resolve a political crisis in Myanmar since a military coup in in February 2021 is questioned by many observers in light of his record of violence and his systematic destruction of Cambodia’s opposition since 2017.

In a briefing ahead of the U.S.-ASEAN gathering, a White House spokesperson had to address Hun Sen’s problematic rights record and noted that he was attending in his role of ASEAN chair.

“When you think about Cambodia, that’s the question that we tend to get,” said Principal Deputy Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre.

“The president and our administration (have) been clear about human rights concerns and promoting human rights in Cambodia,” she added.

Biden “will, of course, not hold back from expressing his views and his priorities to promote human rights in that region,” she added.

Hun Sen resents being held at arm’s length by successive U.S. administrations, which “have generally viewed Cambodia as a strategically marginal country,” said Sebastian Strangio, Southeast Asia Editor at The Diplomat  and author of books on Cambodia and Southeast Asia.

“Hun Sen’s steady accumulation of power and generally authoritarian behavior is the primary reason why he has never been invited to the White House. But it’s also true that many leaders with similar (or worse) records have received the red carpet treatment,” he told RFA in emailed comments.

“Indeed, for Hun Sen, the fact that he has been overlooked, while leaders such as Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut, who seized power in a coup, and Nguyen Phu Trong, the head of the Vietnamese Communist Party, have been feted in Washington, continues to be a source of abiding resentment,” added Strangio.

“From his perspective, it is just one more example of how Western nations have treated Cambodia differently from partners and allies,” he wrote.

Translated by Som Sok-Ry. Written by Paul Eckert.