As the tagline goes: “You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation.”
In the world of luxury, a Patek watch isn’t just a device for telling time, it’s a one-of-a-kind handcrafted heirloom that transcends generations—the cheapest model can set one back by tens of thousands of dollars, while the finest run into the millions.
The watches are the kind of status symbol at home on the wrists of billionaires, CEOs, playboy philanthropists—and, curiously, the strongman ruler of one of the world’s poorest nations.
Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia appears to be an avid Patek Philippe fan, and his love hasn’t gone unnoticed on social media, where he was called out for wearing a $1.2 million Sky Moon Tourbillon with a hand-engraved white gold bezel and blue leather strap.
“No one simply rents a Patek Philippe watch. It is a very high end brand that’s associated with big players,” said Tom Chng, founder of the Singapore Watch Club, who examined a separate post featuring Hun Sen on Instagram, and confirmed the watch featured to be another, even more expensive Patek.
“Hun Sen’s watch is no ordinary watch; it’s a rare and unique find. The high-end elements like the diamond enamel dials and handcrafted motifs combined with the level of master artistry that went into creating such a bespoke piece will definitely fetch a sky-high auction price,” Chng told VICE News. “I definitely wouldn’t see a man of Hun Sen’s status having any issue with getting his hands on a model like this.”
However, Hun Sen came from humble beginnings, and has been in either the military or public service his entire professional life, currently earning a modest official salary of about $2,500 a month. He also cultivates a carefully nurtured everyman image, disseminating images of himself hobnobbing with farmers and motorbike taxi drivers via his widely followed Facebook page.
But according to an eagle-eyed watch enthusiast blog, he has been spotted wearing watches with values totalling close to $9 million, including a rare limited edition Richard Mille Tourbillion Sapphire Dragon valued at $950,000, a model exclusive to Asia with only 55 of its kind available in the world.
“The pretense that Hun Sen earns this salary is absurd. Nobody will buy the idea that he is able to afford these million dollar watches on his salary alone,” said Sebastian Strangio, a Thailand-based political observer and author of the book Cambodia: From Pol Pot to Hun Sen and Beyond.
Indeed, the post with Hun Sen’s Patek Tourbillon caught the attention of many Cambodians and drew a flurry of critical comments, with some questioning where Hun Sen’s money came from.
“Probably the richest leader on the planet who rules the poorest country in the world,” wrote one Cambodian Facebook user.
Another asked: “Should I be proud or be ashamed?”
Both poverty and corruption remain deep-rooted in Cambodia, a Southeast Asian country where an estimated 2.8 million people live below the poverty line, and millions more hover near it. In Transparency International’s 2019 Corruption Perceptions Index, Cambodia scored an abysmal 20 out of 100, ranking 162 out of 198 countries.
Indeed, Hun Sen’s family and inner circle have “profited hugely from the system of grand corruption instituted during his reign,” according to a 2018 Global Witness report.
“Loyalty [to Hun Sen] is handsomely rewarded—the tycoons variously appear to have enjoyed immunity from the law, the rich spoils of the government’s state looting and the use of state forces to guard company operations and violently crackdown on protests against them,” the report reads.
“Hun Sen’s love for multi-million dollar luxury watches is just obscene in a country where per capita GDP is just $1,500 a year,” Andrew MacGregor Marshall, a lecturer at the Edinburgh Napier University, told VICE News.
“Even with Chinese money being pumped into Cambodia, most Cambodians survive on less than $5 a day. The prime minister and his ruling elite are amassing immense, stunning wealth and there is a clear correlation between them and other countries in the region which sees the boldness of such demagogues in their ostentatious displays of wealth and nepotism.”
But unlike in the West, where ostentatious displays of wealth by those in power are generally frowned upon, in Cambodia, Hun Sen’s wrist flex is “not unusual, and actually expected,” according to Strangio.
“In Cambodia, wealth demonstrates power, and it is expected of the people running the country to be rich because it reminds Cambodians where the power lies and who to be thankful for,” Strangio said.
But Hun Sen wasn’t born into money—though his entire life has been marked by a canny ability to climb the ranks.
Born into a family of modest means in the rural province of Kampong Cham, he joined the country’s communist insurgency as a teenager, eventually becoming a senior military commander for the Khmer Rouge—a group so vehemently opposed to capitalism that it abolished currency and summarily executed class enemies.
When the notoriously paranoid regime increasingly began turning on its own, he defected to Vietnam, which he lobbied to invade Cambodia and overthrow the genocidal Khmer Rouge, who by then had killed hundreds of thousands of Cambodians.
As a gangly twenty-something, he was installed by the resulting Vietnam-backed government as foreign minister and continued to rise through the political ranks, becoming Cambodia’s prime minister in 1985, making him one of the world’s longest-serving leaders.
Since then, he has proven characteristically adept at consolidating his rule. Despite losing the country’s first democratic elections, he strong-armed his way into a coalition government with the winning royalist party, which he subsequently ousted in an armed putsch. After a newly formed opposition party came dangerously close to unseating him in 2013, he had the party declared illegal, banning all association with it and arresting its leader.
During his time in power, he has systematically quashed dissent, jailing and exiling critics.
“A leader like Hun Sen will not be ashamed of being seen wearing a $3,200,000 Patek watch even if it appears glaring in a poverty-stricken country because it shows his fitness to rule,” Strangio said. “The same is true with many parliamentarians from his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CCP), a lot of them are incredibly wealthy and have remained in power for so many years because of the political system that plays to their benefit.”
“Wealth and power mutually reinforce and complement his strongman image, even if many Cambodians resent it,” he noted.
Hun Sen’s apparent fondness for high-end watches has many parallels with other luxury-obsessed political figures in the region. Imelda Marcos of the Philippines drew mockery and fierce criticism over the years for her infamous collections of designer shoes and jewellery, which would become the focus of a 2016 anti-corruption government campaign.
Rosmah Mansor, Malaysia’s former first lady and wife of ousted Prime Minister Najib Razak, made headlines after police seized boxes upon boxes of Hermes Birkin bags amid a massive corruption investigation and wheeled them from her Kuala Lumpur penthouse in supermarket shopping trolleys. (Just one of the bags can cost anywhere from $8,000 to $200,000).
Hun Sen is also widely seen as grooming his sons to take over, something he himself has alluded to in the past. His eldest, Hun Manet, is a senior leader in the Cambodian military; his youngest, Hun Many, is a parliamentarian; and his middle son, Hun Manith, is a senior military intelligence officer. In a country where success in business is often accompanied by proximity to power, his daughter, Hun Mana, has become a tycoon with major interests in many corporations, including pro-government media.
Indeed, shielded by Hun Sen’s power and influence, his family has engaged in a “huge network of secret deal-making and nepotism that emanates from the Hun family and underpins the Cambodian economy,” according to a Global Witness report on the Hun clan’s fortune.
But maintaining a relatable public image has been an important tool for Hun Sen, particularly in the age of social media, which he has wielded to his advantage.
He’s even gone so far as buying fake likes to bolster his popularity on Facebook, then using the platform to propagate his image as a man of the people, sharing candid photo-ops with the likes of street vendors, gardeners, and factory workers.
“Hun Sen has always emphasized that he is a man of the people and compares himself to them. He’s good at speaking the rural idiom and often says he understands the hopes and desires of rural folk. But discontent is rising, with landgrabs, evictions, and job losses,” Strangio said.
“Hun Sen is growing increasingly out of touch with Cambodians because he is surrounded and in a sense, protected by layers of yes men and advisors filtering reality to him. And more young Cambodians are connecting the dots, being able to criticize the regime and system in ways their elders could not.”