Cambodian parliamentarians elect Hun Sen’s son, Hun Manet, as new PM

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Cambodia’s national assembly has officially elected the eldest son of outgoing premier Hun Sen to be the country’s new prime minister, a transition of power likened by some to a Southeast Asian version of North Korea’s dynastic leadership.

Hun Manet, 45, a four-star general in Cambodia’s military, was elected by all 123 members of Cambodia’s lower house of parliament who were present for the vote on Tuesday.

“Today is a historical day for Cambodia,” Hun Manet told lawmakers after the vote, according to the AFP news agency.

Hun Sen announced that his son would replace him as prime minister shortly after claiming victory for his party in widely-criticised national elections last month that excluded any serious electoral competition – all but five of the 125 seats were won by members of his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

A plethora of other ruling party officials will also move aside to make way for children and other relatives to step into their shoes in other government offices.

Hun Manet now has the prime minister’s title but Hun Sen will remain very much at the centre of power and politics in Cambodia – symbolically and literally, according to observers and the political opposition.

Hun Manet, nominee for Cambodia's prime minister, gestures as he registers at the National Assembly on the day that parliament votes to confirm the country's next prime minister, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, August 22, 2023. REUTERS/Cindy Liu
Hun Manet gestures as he arrives at the National Assembly in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on the day that parliament voted to confirm him as the country’s new prime minister on August 22, 2023 [Cindy Liu/Reuters]

Exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy said that Hun Manet’s assumption of office does not mark “a significant change in the political landscape of Cambodia”.

“In reality, Hun Sen will continue to pull the strings,” Sam Rainsy wrote in a commentary on Sunday.

Hun Sen, 71, also announced that he is not moving far from the levers of power, stating that he will become president of the Senate and continue to serve in other positions for at least another decade.

In an August 3 speech shortly after announcing his resignation as prime minister, Hun Sen promised not to interfere with the incoming government led by his son but he also reminded the country that he could come back if necessary.

“I do not want this country to be in turmoil,” Hun Sen said at the time.

A Western investor in Cambodia, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Al Jazeera that “nothing much has changed” since the announcement that Hun Sen would step down.

Hun Sen will remain the true centre of authority in Cambodia, the investor said, adding that it is when Hun Sen is no longer present that a true power transition occurs and that will be a crucial test for Hun Manet, the ruling party and Cambodia’s stability.

Nevertheless, Hun Sen’s voluntarily stepping back from his much-loved title as one of the world’s longest-serving leaders is hugely significant.

It is a leadership transition in a country that Hun Sen has strictly ruled over for almost 40 years.

Hun Sen stepping aside also signals to Cambodians that despite his decades of power and control over almost all aspects of life in their country, even the self-styled “Strong Man” leader cannot outlast the march of time.

Cambodians interviewed during the recent election told Al Jazeera they had little information about Hun Manet or what to expect from the handover.

Analysts say that not much is likely to change.

Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council for Foreign Relations, a New York-based think tank, said Hun Sen’s “handing power to his son” was the “equivalent of a North Korean dynastic transition”, adding that repression was likely to continue to ensure there was no dissent during “a potentially fragile transition”.

Corruption that plagues Cambodia could also increase “as Hun Manet spreads patronage around to consolidate his rule”, Kurlantzick wrote earlier this month.

A political analyst in Phnom Penh told Al Jazeera, on the condition of anonymity, that there is much unease and unhappiness – expressed privately – among party members that Hun Manet was elevated to the top job despite having no proven track record in Cambodian politics.

Party members were finding it hard to imagine, the analyst said, how more experienced and older ruling party members were expected to take instruction and direction from a relative youngster.

‘Dynastic succession’

Hun Manet steps into a position from which his father systematically quashed all forms of criticism and dissent – from jailing activists and political opponents to shutting newspapers, radio stations and policing social media – to ensure the country’s millions of users self-censor not to fall foul of Hun Sen’s low tolerance for critique.

Hun Sen also ushered in billions of dollars of Chinese loans and infrastructure projects that have brought new highways, bridges and dams as well as transformed the capital city Phnom Penh’s skyline – now studded with high-end high-rise buildings – and turned the beach town of Sihanoukville into a Chinese casino and crime capital.

Despite that challenging backdrop, some have opined that a generational shift in Cambodia’s ruling party could foster a renewed respect for human rights and a new relationship with the West.

“Dynastic succession is, of course, thoroughly undemocratic. But even so, the elevation of Hun Manet might seem like a reason for Cambodians to hope for a more open, less repressive future,” the Washington Post editorial board wrote in a recent opinion piece.

Hun Manet’s education in the United States – at the West Point military academy and New York University – seem to have earned capital with the newspaper’s editorial board, who noted that with Hun Manet and the other children of retiring party leaders, there was “a chance for a reset in relations”.

“Hun Manet, with his new team, might bring a more worldly, less anti-Western outlook than his 70-year-old father, who is given to anti-American and anti-Western tirades,” the editorial board added.

Expectations are running high for Hun Manet.

“He’s this blank canvas that people can project all their hopes and expectations on,” said Katrin Travouillon, a Cambodian politics expert and professor at the Australian National University.

“He can benefit from that to a certain extent, but it’s also quite a challenge,” Travouillon added.

Hun Manet needs a narrative

Cambodians recently interviewed by Al Jazeera said they had not yet formed an opinion of Hun Manet. He has appeared infrequently on television compared with his father and has yet to speak in detail, publicly, about his plans as the new prime minister.

Kalyan Ky, an Australian-Cambodian former CPP member who worked with Hun Manet from 2014 to 2017, said the grooming of Hun Manet to replace his father became more noticeable over the years when she knew him.

Kalyan Ky told of noticing Hun Manet move from being open to suggestions from others to being “less receptive” to those around him. He also started emulating his father’s speech patterns and gestures.

“They were gradually building him up,” she told Al Jazeera. “They must have ingrained in him that he had to be a certain kind of person for it to work,” she said.

“At the moment, he seems to be controlled by people who are counting on him … and they don’t want to lose power.”

Hun Manet faces more challenges than just proving himself to the ruling party and Cambodian public.

The Cambodian economy, tackling the environmental degradation in the country and the need to appear credible as well as sustain the allegiance of the ruling party and its myriad interest groups are just some of the immediate issues he faces.

Hun Manet also needs a personal story.

His father had little formal education and initially served as a Khmer Rouge soldier before defecting to Vietnam and then returning to topple his former revolutionary leader Pol Pot. He then became the youngest foreign minister in the world under the Vietnamese-installed government, which began a lifelong dance of consolidating power, vanquishing enemies and receiving billions in aid and loans from the West, and now China, to build up Cambodia.

Travouillon, the ANU professor, said that Hun Manet cannot claim his father’s narrative of rising from little, taking great risks and becoming the self-styled protector of peace in Cambodia.

“This might be hugely limiting for him in the long term,” Trauvillon said.

“There is always this notion of being protected by his father.”

Reporting by Fiona Kelliher in Cambodia.

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