PHNOM PENH: Hun Sen's finest hour has arrived.
Often overlooked as one of the world's most notorious autocrats, the former Khmer Rouge commander is set to co-chair with US president Barack Obama a meeting of world leaders that will shape the future of relations between Asia, China and the United States.
Labelled a quisling "one-eyed puppet" of the Vietnamese when he became prime minister of Cambodia 27 years ago, Mr Hun Sen is hosting the East Asian Summit while accused of having placed his country's close relationship with China above the interests of fellow members of the 10-member Association of South-East Asian Nations.
If history is any guide, Mr Hun Sen, a highly intelligent but ruthless strongman, will emerge from the meeting in Phnom Penh on Tuesday will some of his credibility restored after his siding earlier this year with China on territorial disputes in the South China Sea which particularly upset Vietnam and the Philippines and made Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore wary of his ties to Beijing.
For that, he will be able to thank Indonesia, which has drawn up a non-contentious draft code of conduct for nations involved in the disputes that could open the way for talks.
But Mr Obama, fresh from his re-election triumph, is under pressure from a powerful group of Washington legislators and international human rights activists to take a tough approach with Mr Hun Sen during the first visit to Cambodia by a US president.
Leading calls for Mr Obama to demand systematic reforms in Cambodia, Human Rights Watch says Mr Hun Sen's violent and authoritarian rule over more than two decades has resulted in countless killings and other serious abuses.
In Washington, legislators including Senator Patrick Leahy, chairman of a committee that funds US affairs overseas, have signed a letter urging Mr Obama to publicly express concerns about Cambodia's deteriorating human rights situation, saying failure to speak out would undermine the US's support for Asian democrats, to the benefit of Mr Hun Sen and China.
Photo opportunities at the summit are likely to be diplomatically sticky moments for the US president who will cop flak if he is seen giving credibility to a man who has remained in power through politically motivated violence, control of security forces and the judicial system, massive corruption and the tacit support of foreign powers.
Diplomats and long-time residents of Phnom Penh say the secret to Mr Hun Sen's rule is summed up in one word: fear, which is pervasive in Cambodian society.
He destroys his political opponents and critics. His power is so great that merely mentioning someone's name can see them arrested and jailed by a deeply unwaveringly judicial system he has politicised.
Last month Mom Sonando, the owner of a radio station, was sentenced to 20 years' jail for voicing support for the victims of land seizures.
But Mr Hun Sen has also brought stability and economic progress to a country that has endured revolutions, civil war, invasions and vast social upheaval, including the Khmer Rouge's "killing fields" in the 1970s when an estimated 1.7 million people were executed or died from disease or starvation.
The Cambodian People's Party backing him is a former communist party turned capitalist organisation that has retained its pervasive security apparatus down to the village level.
Under Mr Hun Sen's iron-fisted rule Cambodia has been transformed from a war-torn basket case to one of Asia's most promising economies. A booming garment industry, surging tourist arrivals and the development of low-end manufacturing is under-pinning a $13 billion economy.
As he has become one of the world's 10 longest serving political leaders, 61-year-old Mr Hun Sen has become increasingly powerful at home while famous for making long, rambling televised speeches attacking his perceived opponents and critics, telling jokes and revealing his thinking on issues such as sensitive border disputes or Cambodian life.
He comes across as a man completely in charge, an orator who flies in a helicopter and lives in a fortress outside Phnom Penh, guarded by a 1500-strong security force.
As billions of Chinese money has poured into Cambodia over the past decade, Beijing has become Mr Hun Sen's closest ally. He embarrassed his ASEAN colleagues on the South China Sea issue at a meeting chaired by Cambodia in July by blocking a communique mentioning the disputes.
But diplomats say Mr Hun Sen is a fiercely nationalist patriot, not beholden to anyone, who has declared he wants to stay in power for another 30 years, by which time he will be 90.
"He will take the money but that doesn't mean he is any nation's stooge ... he acts in the interests of Cambodia," a diplomat in Phnom Penh says. "The Chinese are not in the charity business ... they called in their chits on the South China Sea and Hun Sen paid up," the diplomat says.
Mr Hun Sen, who lost an eye while fighting for the Khmer Rouge, before fleeing to Vietnam and returning to Cambodia on the coat-tails of a Vietnamese invasion in 1979, is an enigmatic figure who plays chess, chain smokes and writes songs.
When he learnt one of his daughters was a lesbian he kicked her out of home. When a political opponent announced his intention to return from exile he threatened to blow up the plane.
When a journalist suggested he should be worried about dictators falling in the Arab Spring, he replied: "I not only weaken the opposition, I'm going to make them dead ... and if anyone is strong enough to try to hold a demonstration, I will beat all those dogs and put them in a cage."
Mr Hun Sen staged a bloody coup in 1997 against his royalist coalition partners. Human Rights Watch said the coup was followed by a wave of extrajudicial killings, cremations, torture and forced detentions by Mr Hun Sen's forces.
Doing business usually means giving kickbacks to the Hun Sen government's cronies, often millions of dollars. Large bribes are paid to government officials in the form of gifts, which are still not illegal in Cambodia.
The country ranks 164th of 182 countries on Transparency International's Corruption Index. The transparency advocacy group says Cambodia's corruption easily surpasses that of its neighbours and could soon be worse than Burma's.
Mr Hun Sen built a mansion in Phnom Penh but doesn't live there.
Diplomats say he always keeps his promises and is well read about issues before meetings.
Amid growing dissent over huge grabs of land across Cambodia by large companies, some of them Chinese, Mr Hun Sen has recruited 3000 students to go into the countryside to survey land and give away plots to poor people.
He has in mind elections due next year.
Ahead of the summit, which opens this weekend, Mr Hun Sen has deployed thousands of troops across Phnom Penh, leaving nothing to chance for his moment on the world stage. Street beggars have been rounded up and taken to a former detention centre outside the city. Roadside slums have been cleared.
Meetings by organisations critical of the government have been disrupted.
However Kurt Campbell, the top US diplomat for East Asia, says the US will not shy away from raising its concerns over human rights during Mr Obama's visit.
Human rights activists suggest Mr Obama could start with a grenade attack on a rally led by opposition leader Sam Rainsy on March 30 1997, a date remembered each year as "impunity day" because critics say it illustrates the government's failure to bring to justice those responsible for numerous extrajudicial killings of labour leaders, journalists and opposition leaders since 1992.
The FBI sent a team of agents to investigate the attacks which left 16 people dead and 150 injured.
Mr Hun Sen did not allow the agents to wrap up their investigations, ordering them out of the country after two months. But it was not before they had concluded the chain of command for the attacks led all the way to the prime minister.