PHNOM PENH — Cambodia’s succession won’t be rushed. When speculation swirled a couple years ago that the prime minister’s eldest son would take over in this summer’s election, the premier slapped it down in a speech from Prey Veng.
“I am still standing, so what’s the point of my son being the prime minister,” Hun Sen said in late 2021. “So, his possible [premiership] is not before 2028. It is more likely to take place between 2028 and even 2030. He must wait.”
Yet the national election this July will mark another major step in that process. Lt. Gen. Hun Manet, a career military man, will for the first time officially step into the political arena, as the top candidate on the Cambodian People’s Party parliamentary ticket for Phnom Penh.
It’s not the end of the Hun Sen era. But to many, the lights are dimming as the prime minister approaches 40 years in power. And as Hun Manet seeks to build support inside and outside the ruling party, the spotlight is moving to the 46-year-old West Point graduate as he steps out from his father’s imposing shadow.
“I can say that we are impressed with his educational background and other qualities,” Son Chhay, a longtime opposition figure now among the Candlelight Party’s deputy presidents, told VOA Khmer in early February.
“But we will have to wait and see how he seeks to resolve the country’s pressing issues including corruption, judicial independence to name a few.”
Hun Manet is among a new crop of CPP leaders — mostly children of the old guard — that must execute a delicate balancing act in the years ahead. Convince the public that they have a modern vision for Cambodia, without making changes that undermine the patronage network propping up the ruling party.
“[U]ntil Hun Sen dies and passes from the scene permanently, he will have a dominant role in Cambodian politics. Even if he is not formally serving as prime minister anymore, he will still be working behind the scenes to ensure a stable balance of power within the CPP,” Sebastian Strangio, author of ‘Hun Sen’s Cambodia,’ told VOA Khmer from Australia.
“So, I do think that change, if the transition of power is carried out smoothly without opposition from within the CPP, I predict that it probably won't change a lot,” Strangio said.
Manet officially became a four-star general in April, placing him alongside military leaders who are mostly his father's age, many of which cut their teeth as young Khmer Rouge fighters before joining the Vietnamese forces who fought against Pol Pot’s regime in the 1980s.
Any internal angst over his meteoric rise in the armed forces has remained private, while Manet has also taken on a growing political portfolio.
He is a member of the ruling party’s powerful permanent committee. And for the past decade, Hun Manet, along with his youngest brother Hun Many, has been in charge of efforts to expand the CPP’s support among Cambodian youth, both at home and abroad.
Young Cambodians were a driving force behind the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party’s success in 2013, both inside Cambodia and in countries such as Thailand and South Korea with large populations of Cambodian migrant workers.
As the CPP systematically crushed dissent in the ensuing years, Hun Manet and Many ramped up activities and incentives for youth to connect with the ruling party and its new generation of leaders. As Hun Manet has been tapped to replace his father, dozens of CPP progeny are moving into positions of power.
Among the most notable recent examples, Dith Tina, the 44-year-old French educated son of the Supreme Court president, was appointed to lead the Agriculture Ministry late last year. And Thong Rothasak, the son of the tourism minister, was appointed in early April to be secretary of state of that ministry.
“The change of guard, after more than 40 years, is a monumental event. With the coming to power of a new generation of PhD holders, we can expect the incoming government to relate in new ways to society compared to their parents’ generation, and for power to speak in new ways,” said Astrid Norén-Nilsson, an associate senior lecturer at the Center for East and Southeast Asian Studies, at Lund University in Sweden.
“The new guard, that does not have the historical association with the period of civil war and competing factions, has new possibilities to project themselves as representatives of the nation as a whole – which is exactly what they have set out to do,” she added.
However, the backdrop of this year’s election underscores that challenge.
In early March, opposition leader Kem Sokha was sentenced to 27 years under house arrest.
Later that month, opposition activists were arrested for social media posts criticizing the prime minister. And in February, Hun Sen shut down Voice of Democracy, with the Information Ministry retracting its license to operate as an independent news outlet. VOD was one of the country’s last independent media outlets.
Strangio agreed the ascension of younger CPP leaders represents “an important generational change” that gives a certain optimism for a change in world views and attitude, but he said the maintenance of the CPP-decade-old patronage system is going to “foreclose any major degree of reform.”
“I think that these young individuals, even if their outlooks are different in some respects from those of their parents and grandparents, I do think that they will continue to have to work within the logic of the system, which in many ways has been designed to resist political reform.”
Like Father, Like Son
Over the past two years, Hun Manet’s public appearances have skyrocketed. He regularly speaks at inaugurations for hospitals, schools, Buddhist temples, factories, and even hotels — a role dutifully carried out by his father for decades.
As part of his official duties, ostensibly as commander of the Royal Cambodian Army, he also met and spoke with 29 senior defense officials and at least 10 world leaders, including Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Even Hun Manet's social media platforms look like his father’s, with a news feed filled with video clips and commentary boasting of the CPP’s legacy of peace and economic development. The images and messages share with his 1.1 million Facebook followers painted a picture of an energetic leader, a fearless army commander, a loving father, and a grateful son.
“War and internal conflict are the greatest enemy to our nation. Don’t let this enemy happen to us again. We must work together to protect peace and our national unity at all costs. What allowed us to attain and maintain peace is the prime minister Hun Sen’s and CPP-led Win Win policy,” Hun Manet said in a video snippet released on Facebook in late February.
Often dressed in his military uniform, Hun Manet’s public speeches often sound like he’s been studying his father’s oratory playbook. Hun Manet frequently points and gestures while driving home a point, only to pause mid-speech, awaiting a round of applause. He’ll often begin with a formal speech, then segue into political commentary or respond to media reports that angered him.
“Ever since I was endorsed as the CPP prime ministerial candidate, I have been relentlessly attacked by him [Sam Rainsy],” Hun Manet fumed, referring to the exiled opposition leader. “He has made up all sorts of things to attack me, and I have no time to respond. If these things are important to him at his age, let him do that. I have other important things to do for the wellbeing of the country.''
The message is clear: Hun Manet is primed to take over. But what happens after that is less clear, said Ear Sophal, a senior associate dean and an associate professor in the Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University.
“It's clear the father wants the son to take over; the scenario in which something happens has already been anticipated and prepared for. Hun Manet takes over, period. There is no if, and, or but. However, he still has to maintain power. That depends on how he rules and whether anyone dares to question his rule after the fact,” added Ear Sophal.
New Vision vs. Father’s Legacy
Born in 1977 during the Khmer Rouge’s reign, and raised amid the civil war of the 1980s, Hun Manet is part of a post-war generation that knows the struggles of wartime well. Yet most of his life has been lived in extreme privilege.
At the age of 18, he went to the United States Military Academy at West Point and graduated in 1998. He then pursued and attained master's and PhD degrees in economics at the New York University in 2002 and University of Bristol in the United Kingdom in 2008.
“His military background, amplified by his economic background, makes him the ideal candidate for the country’s future leader. It’s rare to have someone who has the best knowledge of these key areas,” said Chhay Sophal, a media professor and author of “The Prime Minister's Eldest Son: Journey Towards Turn,” released in August 2022.
Hun Manet’s anticipated premiership would require protecting his father’s legacy and trying to take the country in a new direction, said Ou Virak, founder of the research center, Future Forum in Phnom Penh.
“I think he will try to do both. But will the system allow him to do both? And the answer is no. I think he is going to find it very, very complicated and it's going to be very difficult to maneuver,” said Ou Virak.
But Cambodia’s likely next leader has expressed his intention to do just that. Speaking recently of changes within the military, he said “when there is a reform, there will be change. Some will be unhappy by that, while some are happy.”
Ou Virak warned that factions within the CPP are “trying to get a piece of the cake that is not enough to go around, and that’s going to create a lot of tensions as well.” He said those dynamics will require Hun Manet to “make a lot of deals.”
“You have to make a lot of compromises. And the question is actually what would be the right level of compromises to be made? That doesn't just take some calculation. That takes art and creativity and leadership, combination of all. You have to be above and beyond in all three, to be able to pull it off,” Ou Virak said.
However, some within the CPP say Hun Manet has already shown an ability to strike the right balance. “He’s a very strong and good leader,” Ly Chantola, president of the Bar Association of Cambodia, told VOA Khmer in an interview at his office in February.
“He is open to new ideas and curious to learn from others, taking other recommendations as he sees fit, though keeping his decisions within the CPP visions and core values,” the French-educated lawyer said.
Since taking the first official role as the Commander of Cambodia's National Counter-Terrorism Special Forces in 2008, Hun Manet has been involved in reforming the country’s military, negotiating the Cambodia-Thai border dispute in 2011 and containing the Covid-19 pandemic.
The prime minister’s eldest son can expect his portfolio to swell in the years to come, regardless of how soon he officially steps into his father’s shoes.
And as campaign season enters full swing over the next two months, Cambodians can expect to see a lot more of their future leader.
Even though the CPP is widely expected to win in a landslide, given the diminished state of the opposition, the decision to place Hun Manet on the ballot for this July elections is “the best scenario for the ruling party,” Ou Virak said.
Hun Manet’s succession may be a fait accompli, but his democratic legitimacy will depend on how the CPP handles the upcoming elections, he added.
“I think the new cabinet including Hun Manet himself, should be put to the people to vote in a more credible manner, so they can obtain the mandate of the people. That would be my advice.”