Watching the watcher

Julia Wallace

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The Venerable Luon Sovath. Photograph: Chris Kelly

It was 7am on Samdech Hun Sen Boulevard, but it felt like high noon. No trees, fewer and fewer of the water-mimosa farms that once stretched out here like a smelly green carpet, just six lanes of new black tarmac, already shimmering with that ominous slickness that means it’s hot and is going to be hotter. In the distance, the phallic shape of Techo Sen Radar Station rubbed up against the Phnom Penh skyline. We waited for Techo Sen himself. There was nothing to do but take selfies and watch people take selfies.

“Samdech”, or “lord”, and “Techo”, or “great warrior”, are part of a twelve-syllable string of Pali-derived honorifics that Hun Sen, the long-ruling Cambodian prime minister, has had affixed to his name, part of a broader project to bolster his legitimacy by bundling it in the trappings of righteous Khmer kingship. His wealthiest supporters are, by the same logic, known as oknha, a title traditionally reserved for the king’s favourites. In the past, these were a hodgepodge of tax collectors, local warlords, bureaucrats and lackeys, who had in common only their mutually beneficial relationships with the Cambodian king. Every six months, they were called to drink the “water of allegiance” at the Royal Palace. They came bearing gifts.

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