The People’s Republic of Kampuchea, run by the Vietnamese-backed Kampuchean People's Revolutionary Party, was facing a multi-front attack on the fledgling nation-state in 1984. Three insurgent forces – a mixture of republicans, monarchists, and Maoists supported by both China and the United States – were putting up a formidable fight on the country’s western border.
The then-Prime Minister Chan Sy died suddenly in December 1984, leaving the young government without a leader – the second change of leadership in its five-year-long term.
Influential politburo member Say Phuthang wasted little time to put forth his name to a five-member team, of which he was a member, tasked with finding a new premier. After deliberations, the five senior party leaders instead picked their young foreign minister, Hun Sen, to lead the government.
“They were aware of my capabilities, which I had demonstrated as the foreign minister,” Hun Sen told authors Harish C. Mehta and Julie Mehta in a 1998 interview.
“They [put] a lot of confidence in me [even though] at that time, among the members of the government and the party I was the youngest,” said Hun Sen during the same interview, which was published in “Strongman: The Extraordinary Life of Hun Sen."
Last week, Hun Sen crossed 36 years as prime minister of Cambodia, making him one of the longest-serving elected officials in the world.
During his time as prime minister, Hun Sen has overseen the entry of the U.N.-backed UNTAC, a bloody 1997 coup that saw him regain control as prime minister the following year, his much-touted “peace and development” agenda, a narrow victory at the 2013 general election, and, more recently, the country’s return to de facto one-party rule after the 2018 election.
Since the 2018 election, there is increasing talk and speculation over Hun Sen’s succession plans. Analysts and Cambodia observers told VOA Khmer that Hun Sen would spend the next phase of his hold on power solidifying his legacy and setting up a transition to a new leader.
Harish Mehta, co-author of “Strongman: The Extraordinary Life of Hun Sen,” said the Cambodian prime minister had not wavered from principles he had held since their first meeting at the National Assembly in 1991.
The prime minister had successfully created a part power-structure with him at the core, said Harish Mehta, ensuring that the functioning of the government and Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) was intrinsically linked to him.
“He stated [in 1998] that it would be very difficult for his opponents to remove him from power because he had built up such a network,” Harish Mehta said of Hun Sen.
“The CPP remains disciplined, and they have accepted Hun Sen’s leadership. If Hun Sen had performed badly on the economy, the old guard may have called for his removal, but when the economy has done so well, why would they disturb him?” Harish Mehta added.
In 2017, Hun Sen made one of his most decisive steps to hold on to power, since the 1997 coup. In September of that year, Cambodia National Rescue Party President Kem Sokha was arrested and charged with treason, shortly after the opposition party had won one-third of all commune chief positions
Two months later, the party was dissolved by the Supreme Court, headed by CPP permanent committee member Dith Munty, for allegedly fomenting a so-called color revolution, assisted by the United States.
The following February, the CPP won all elected positions in the Senate, a feat that was repeated in July 2018, when the ruling party swept all 125 National Assembly seats.
David P. Chandler, the author of “A History of Cambodia,” said there seemed to be no challenge to Hun Sen’s current hold on power – both domestic and international threats had been nullified.
Chandler contends that Hun Sen, with “full control of the country,” would see no immediate reason to relinquish the prime minister’s position.
“I know that I can’t talk about the future, but if you feel good holding the power up to now, I don’t see any good reasons to think he is weakening or people have been saying for years that he’s about ready to be overthrown and so on,” Chandler said.
“It’s not going to happen.”
Hun Sen’s crackdown against the political opposition has continued unabated. But, he has also ensured that civil society groups and independent media organizations – some set up under or just after UNTAC’s presence in the early 1990s – have been silenced or kept in check.
This includes the shuttering of the Cambodia Daily in 2017 and the sale of the Phnom Penh Post to a friendly Malaysian businessman in 2018. Non-governmental organizations and workers' unions advocating for free expression, the right to the association, or highlighting environmental and land rights violations have been intimidated or harassed, with many activists languishing in prisons on politically-motivated charges.
Analysts say these actions collectively have given the ruling party and Hun Sen the space to prepare a secure transition.
“[Hun Sen] has to be sure that his family is safe and prosperous. Nothing else that should concern him” beyond the exit, said David Chandler.
CPP members have fully embraced their control over all legislative positions on the national level, and are now espousing the need for the ruling party to continue its hold on power for decades.
Cambodian People’s Party Spokesperson Sok Eysan said the party needed a “stable environment” for a national and intraparty transition to take place.
“You cannot expect anything but extending solid control by the CPP, not only for the next 10 years but for the next 20 or 30 years, so that no one is capable of or able to jeopardize the national political peace, stability, and people’s harmony.”
Sok Eysan then equated the wellbeing of the nation with that of Hun Sen’s family and that the latter was equally needed to ensure “national harmony.”
Amidst all the speculation over the CPP’s future, Hun Sen has said he would step down in 2030, which would be midway to the 2033 national election. Media reports have pegged his eldest son, Lt. Gen. Hun Manet, who now serves as the country’s army chief, as the primary candidate to take over from his father.
More recently, Finance Minister Aun Pornmoniroth has seen his name floated as a possible successor to Hun Sen, which has been quickly embraced by the prime minister – potentially to distract from numerous reports that Hun Manet was slated to take over leadership of the CPP government.
Both Pornmoniroth and Manet were inducted to the all-powerful, 36-member permanent committee of the ruling CPP in late 2018.
Harish Mehta said it was plausible that Hun Manet could play second fiddle to Aun Pornmoniroth for a short duration of time, allowing for a subtler transition of power to Hun Sen’s son.
“With Aun [Pornmoniroth] as prime minister, Manet could become deputy prime minister, and gradually ease into the roles of PM after one or two general elections,” Harish Mehta said.
But it would depend on Aun Pornmoniroth’s electability, he said, and whether Manet and the current finance minister made a good team.
This transition could see a further deterioration in Cambodia’s democratic principles, said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch. He said the international community was right now watching the “complete and total destruction” of Cambodia’s democracy.
“There needs to be accountability and right now we are not seeing it and Cambodia has just slipped below the levels of attention from many countries and that’s unacceptable.”
Harish Mehta said that ultimately Hun Sen’s exit from active politics would correspond with how he wants to position himself in the history books.
“Hun Sen would like to be remembered as a leader who was on the correct side of history: that he helped overthrow the genocidal Khmer Rouge, and then enabled his country to make the transition to peace, stability, and growing prosperity.”