A Long-Dead Cambodian King Is Back — and He Looks Familiar

A Long-Dead Cambodian King Is Back — and He Looks Familiar


PREY NOKOR KNUNG, Cambodia — Once upon a time in this remote corner of Cambodia, a bold young temple servant raised an army, overthrew an unjust king and saved a nation.

He could walk on water, make dragons do his bidding and shoot four arrows at once from the same bow. During his brief 16th-century reign, he invented Cambodia’s first currency, and he pioneered the concept of class consciousness three centuries before Marx.

So goes the unlikely legend of Sdech (or King) Kan, once remembered, if at all, as a minor usurper of the throne. Now he seems to be everywhere, thanks to Prime Minister Hun Sen — another common man turned near-absolute ruler, who has been so intent on identifying himself with the semi-mythical figure that some suspect he considers himself the king’s reincarnation.

At least seven statues of Kan have gone up across Cambodia in recent years, all with facial features strongly resembling Mr. Hun Sen’s. Most were commissioned by wealthy officials and businessmen to show fealty to the authoritarian prime minister, said Astrid Noren-Nilsson, a lecturer at Lund University in Sweden who specializes in Cambodian politics.

Photo

Mr. Hun Sen at a November ceremony in Phnom Penh, the capital, marking Cambodia’s Independence Day. In recent years he has tended to conflate the state with his personal rule.

Credit
Samrang Pring/Reuters

“I do imagine that Hun Sen considers himself a reincarnation of Sdech Kan, destined to lead the nation through prowess and might,” Dr. Noren-Nilsson said.

In speeches, Mr. Hun Sen has noted that he and Kan were both born in the Year of the Dragon, a symbolically potent coincidence in a superstitious country. He has sponsored research to find the site of Kan’s capital — which proved to be not far from the prime minister’s birthplace — and paid to have it developed as a tourist attraction. In August, Kan was the hero of a heavily promoted action movie directed by an official in Mr. Hun Sen’s government.

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