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Cambodia’s Hun Sen Hints Son Will Become PM After Election

Hun Manet, son of Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen, waves to people during the final Cambodian People's Party campaign stop for the upcoming general election, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, July 21, 2023.

As Hun Manet, eldest son of longtime Prime Minister Hun Sen, wrapped up the ruling Cambodian People’s Party’s (CCP) campaign on Friday, his father hinted that his son, a West Point graduate, could become the prime minister just after Sunday’s unopposed election.

In a video interview with China’s Phoenix TV, which was released Thursday, the prime minister said there were two leading candidates for the ruling party — himself and Hun Manet.

“It is also possible that in just three or four weeks, Hun Manet can become the prime minister. Let’s see what other people say,” said Hun Sen, who has been in power for 38 years and turns 71 next month.

“I believe that Manet is more competent than me,” he told Phoenix TV. “He will serve the people better than me.

“I am the one who makes the biggest sacrifice. Right now, I have an absolute power, but in about a month, I won't have the power to sign any bills the same way as I do today,” said Hun Sen, who is drawing closer to China. He added that the changeover was under consideration “not for my son” but because his family needs to continue to maintain peace in the Southeast Asian country.

Hun Manet has long been seen as his father’s successor, but Hun Sen’s comments to Phoenix TV marked the first time a timeline had been attached to the transfer of power.

In 2021, Hun Sen had said, “I am still standing, so what’s the point of my son being the prime minister? … His possible [premiership] is not before 2028. It is more likely to take place between 2028 and even 2030. He must wait.”

Hun Manet is a 1998 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He also completed graduate work in economics, earning a master's degree from New York University in 2002 and a doctorate from the University of Bristol in 2008.

In Sunday’s election, Hun Manet is standing as the lawmaker candidate on the top list of seats for Phnom Penh. To become a premier, the candidate has to be an elected lawmaker among the total of 125.

Ruling CPP spokesperson Sok Eysan said Hun Manet’s prospects for the top office were good.

"The percentage of the possibility [that Hun Manet will become PM] is high,” he said.

Accusations against Hun Sen

In June, Hun Sen said the government would be formed on August 31, just weeks after the election. Human rights groups have dismissed the election as a sham and accuse Hun Sen of controlling the media, threatening critics and systematically dismantling his opposition using trumped-up criminal charges.

Hun Manet now serves as a commander in chief of the Royal Cambodian Army. The four-star general is also the deputy commander-in-chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces.

Hun Sen had long positioned his eldest son to be his successor, but political analysts and observers have only been able to speculate about when and how he would hand over power — and if indeed it would be handed to Hun Manet.

“This is the closest we’ve had yet to a definitive public confirmation about the timing of the handover of power,” journalist Sebastian Strangio, author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia, posted on Twitter on Friday.

Cambodia’s National Election Committee (NEC) disqualified the main opposition Candlelight Party from competing in the July national election, citing lack of paperwork. The decision has been criticized by international communities, and the appeal to the NEC failed in May.

FILE - Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen salutes, along with his son, Lt. Gen. Hun Manet, during an inspection of troops at a ceremony in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Jan. 24, 2019.
FILE - Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen salutes, along with his son, Lt. Gen. Hun Manet, during an inspection of troops at a ceremony in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Jan. 24, 2019.

Ou Virak, president of Future Forum, a think tank in Cambodia, said Hun Sen’s announcement was not a surprise.

“If Hun Manet becomes a premier after the upcoming election, Cambodia will change politicians from the old generation to the new generation,” he told VOA Khmer.

On Friday, the final day of campaigning, Hun Manet, 45, said his party would win by a landslide as he spoke of how the CPP had maintained peace and stability after decades of war.

'He has the wisdom'

Ruling party supporter Chin Sophan, 46, told VOA Khmer she believed the CPP would win. She wants Hun Manet to be the leader because she was pleased with his father’s rule.

"So, I am very satisfied because he has the wisdom to rule our country well," she said, adding “it’s the time that there is no war and no opposition.”

Phoeun Mealeadey, 19, a college freshman majoring in banking, said she thought Hun Manet would be a capable prime minister "because he has knowledge, he has highest education.”

Hun Manet recently told hundreds of supporters: "Democratic elections are based on the law. Whatever the CPP does, [it] is doing [it] legally. This is fair and just competition and transparency, which is based on the law. Effective democracy is based on the rule of law. This is what the CPP will try to win.”

Khemara Pov Sok contributed to this report. Some information came from Reuters.