Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has been in office for 36 years, said on Thursday that he would head Cambodia’s government indefinitely, an announcement described by his ruling party spokesperson as “political rhetoric.”
Speaking at Phnom Penh’s Calmette Hospital, where Hun Sen was getting vaccinated along with senior cabinet ministers and officials with the recently-arrived AstraZeneca vaccine, he revised his previously-stated timeline to transition to new leadership.
Hun Sen, who is 68 and now the world’s longest-serving prime minister, said he would not be defeated.
“I will not die anytime soon. And now that my body is vaccinated, I will not easily die,” he said.
“I will stop making announcements about [stepping down] in ten or twenty years. I will rule until a point that I feel I no longer want to rule,” Hun Sen said.
The prime minister had previously said he would likely step down from prime ministership after the 2028 general election. While observers say he will likely hand over power to his oldest son, Army Commander Hun Manet, Hun Sen has said his son would have to compete with other party stalwarts.
In December 2020, Hun Sen again revised his plans to leave as head of the government in 2030. He named Finance Minister Aun Pornmoniroth as a likely successor, but only after some media speculated that Pornmonioth was a potential successor to Hun Sen.
Sok Eysan, a spokesperson for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, said Hun Sen’s comments on being in power indefinitely was just “political rhetoric,” and aimed at critics who alleged that Hun Sen was making the prime ministership a family affair.
“According to my understanding and my opinion, it was because Khmer-service broadcasting of foreign radio stations is trying to smear the Hun family for building a dynastic rule to transfer powers to the generations of prime minister’s children and grandchildren,” he said.
“This is not reasonable and runs in contradiction to the principles of the CPP. Thus, the prime minister is fed up which is why he responded like this.”
Sok Eysan pointed to a February 27 report from Radio Free Asia’s Khmer Service, which reported that Hun Manet was taking a more active role in the government COVID-19 recovery efforts to boost his political capital.
The CPP spokesperson said he was unaware if Hun Sen had changed his mind and no longer planned to retire by 2030. “I, too, do not know. You have to ask the prime minister on this matter because he knows best,” Sok Eysan said.
“But according to the CPP’s principles in its guidelines and bylaws, when and who to nominate as a prime ministerial candidate shall only be decided by the party’s congress and we cannot make any presumptions about that,” he said.
Political commentator Meas Nee said that despite Hun Sen’s announcement to govern indefinitely, there was a clear path being laid out for Hun Manet to take over from his father.
“For the Prime Minister’s speech, I think he is fed up with the critics [commenting] on this matter,” Meas Nee said. “But in reality, we observe that this effort [to groom Manet] is underway. It is a matter of time, but we do not know when.”
Hun Manet was promoted to lead the Cambodian Army and given operational control of the military in the event of a conflict. The 43-year old was also inducted into the CPP’s elite permanent committee and heads the party’s youth wing.