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Cambodia's Strongman, 65, Displays Warm, Vital Images on Facebook

This recent Facebook photo shows Hun Sen at the wheel of a passenger vehicle. Usually, he's driven in a bulletproof SUV.

Hun Sen shopping. Hun Sen working out. Hun Sen, family guy.

For the 65-year-old prime minister of Cambodia, a onetime Khmer Rouge commander, his recent about-face to show a warm and fuzzy side is a startling development. The man who now has 8.5 million Facebook followers oversaw Cambodia's emergence from civil war and has dominated it, sometimes ruthlessly, for 32 years.

Hun Sen is pictured with his children and grandson during his hospital stay.
Hun Sen is pictured with his children and grandson during his hospital stay.

But Hun Sen turned 65 on August 5, and it appears his increasingly active social media presence is a move to show the public that he is likable, relaxed and — above all, after a publicized hospital stay in Singapore — healthy. The strongman who once vowed to rule Cambodia until he hit 74 seems keen to quell any rumors that he is frail before the 2018 general election campaign begins.

One recent post on Facebook, Cambodia's dominant social media platform, shows him posing for a selfie with supporters while driving a passenger vehicle. Usually, Hun Sen is driven in bulletproof SUVs.

Hun Sen works out on a treadmill.
Hun Sen works out on a treadmill.

Another post shows him visiting an overseas shopping mall with his family. And then there's the fitness shot with the comment: "Every evening I have to exercise by cycling on this machine and walking on a treadmill ... because it is hard to go golfing in the rainy season."

Countering rumors

The gym photo may offset the rumors that blossomed online in May, after photos posted to Hun Sen's Facebook page showed him lying in a hospital bed surrounded by his children and grandchildren. The illness? Exhaustion, treated in Singapore.

Speculation about his health surged again in late June when Hun Sen canceled appearances at a few weekly Council of Ministers meetings. Hun Sen addressed those rumors by saying they had originated with political opponents, and that the military would not tolerate the spread of such disinformation.

Hun Sen, Cambodia's prime minister, is pictured with his family at a shopping mall.
Hun Sen, Cambodia's prime minister, is pictured with his family at a shopping mall.

Mu Sochua, vice president of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), denied any rumormongering, saying the party was too busy preparing for next year's elections and training newly elected local officials.

"The CNRP has time and again said it's not responsible for any opinions that run counter to the party's policy of [promoting] democracy, protecting people's rights, nonviolence and justice," she told VOA Khmer. "The CNRP has no time to disseminate any other information."

Aging out?

Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party narrowly won the 2013 general elections, in disputed results that sparked large protests. In this year's communal elections, the CPP also lost some ground to the CNRP.

As a result, senior CPP members may try to claim power from Hun Sen or oppose his sons, who are being groomed for leadership roles and could succeed him.

Sebastian Strangio, a journalist and author of Hun Sen's Cambodia, said that, barring any health problems, Hun Sen was likely to rule for many years to come, though it seems he is preparing for his succession.

"I think Prime Minister Hun Sen is readying a dynastic succession plan. It's clear that he wants to hand over the power to one of his sons," he told VOA.

Hun Sen's oldest son, Hun Manet, is seen as a likely successor. A Cambodian army lieutenant general who heads the Defense Ministry's counterterrorism department, he commands his father's bodyguard unit, which has several thousand members.

A picture of Hun Sen during his days with the Khmer Rouge.
A picture of Hun Sen during his days with the Khmer Rouge.

Another son, Hun Many, is a CPP member of parliament. A third son, Hun Manith, is an army brigadier general. Hun Sen's daughter, Hun Mana, controls a major media company.

"The question is: Are any of his sons in a position to take over? Are they prepared enough? Are they skilled enough at politics? And the second question is: Would the rest of the party accept that decision?" said Strangio.

No eternal life

CPP members are mostly mum about what may happen after the era of Hun Sen, who has been party president since 2015.

A party spokesman, Sok Isan, dismissed as "politically biased" questions about whether Hun Sen was planning a political dynasty.

"The nomination of a prime minister candidate … depends on the party congress to decide," Sok Isan told VOA.

One thing is guaranteed, said Sous Yara, a CPP lawmaker and central committee member, although he stopped short of discussing the succession issue: "We know that no one lives an eternal life."

This report originated on VOA Khmer.