When Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen landed in Naypyidaw last Friday for talks with Myanmar’s junta leader, he arrived accompanied by two of his sons, the parliamentarian Hun Many and Cambodia’s de facto military chief Hun Manet, who was recently selected as the country’s next prime ministerial candidate.
Hun Sen, as chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) this year, courted controversy with his Myanmar visit as many commentators argued it achieved nothing but to confer legitimacy on the brutal junta leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.
One thing achieved, however, was the diplomatic schmoozing necessary before the eventual succession of Manet, who on December 24 received the support of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to take over when his father finally steps down.
Hun Sen has been in power since 1985, making him one of the world’s longest-ruling leaders. However, Manet will still have to run in an election and win a seat before he can take the reins of power.
Naypyidaw was the latest capital Manet can tick off his list. Since his appointment as the Cambodian military’s deputy commander-in-chief in 2018, he has traveled to Thailand, Russia, Singapore and Vietnam, as well as to Hawaii as part of a US-led military meeting.
He and his wife, the businesswoman Pich Chanmony, are key nodes for South Korean investors – and so are probably already au fait in Seoul.
In February 2020, he accompanied his father on a visit to Beijing, where they met President Xi Jinping to discuss Cambodia’s response in what were the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic. Manet is also expected to soon visit Japan, a key investor and trading partner of Cambodia, Japan’s ambassador to Cambodia, Mikami Masahiro, said last month.
“This is a sign of acceptance of Manet as heir apparent by Japan,” noted Sophal Ear, an associate dean and professor at the Thunderbird School of Management in Arizona. “I’m sure he will want to [visit] other powers as well,” Ear added. “He has to do a charm offensive for Cambodia.”
After visiting Beijing, now Cambodia’s closest partner, all eyes will be on whether Manet gets an invite to Washington, which is locked in an increasingly tense war-of-words with Phnom Penh, primarily over US accusations that Cambodia may allow Chinese troops access to its main naval base.Hun Manet will have to swap his uniform for a suit if he takes over. Photo: WikiCommons
If US President Joe Biden’s plan for a special US-ASEAN summit in Washington goes ahead later this year, Manet will likely be in toe. Observers already expect him to play a leading role when Phnom Penh hosts this year’s ASEAN Summit in October.
But strutting his stuff on the international stage may be easier for Cambodia’s probable next ruler than gaining acceptance at home.
Manet, who is only 44, has notably never held political office. His advancement through the military ranks is viewed by many as nepotistic. And while he’s popular on social media, few Cambodians have had a chance to acquaint themselves with their presumed next ruler.
Sam Rainsy, a self-exiled opposition leader and long-time Hun Sen adversary, recently started a spat over whether Manet was gifted his graduation from the elite American military academy West Point, as well as his degrees from New York University and the University of Bristol.
“With an unearned high public office and with virtually no achievement under his belt, Hun Manet cannot be as powerful as his father and able to easily prevail over his peers without his father’s mantle,” said Lao Mong Hay, a veteran Cambodian political analyst.
Hun Sen may be skewed towards downplaying these risks. After all, he became foreign minister in 1979 at the age of only 26, and prime minister six years later. But Cambodia in the 1980s isn’t Cambodia in 2023 or 2028 – or whenever Manet actually assumes the premiership.
We have known for years that Hun Sen – who said as much in 2018 – wants to hand power down to Manet. More importantly, it makes political sense to keep power within the family. Hun Sen has pushed out most other party grandees since the late 1990s.
Bun Rany, his wife, controls much of the ruling party’s “charitable” activities. His daughter Hun Mana owns much of the media industry and is a key networker for foreign companies. Hun Manith, another son, is the intelligence chief.
Then there is the extended family. Manet’s wife is the daughter of Pich Sophoan, permanent secretary of state at the labor ministry; Many’s wife, Yim Chhay Lin, is the daughter of Deputy Prime Minister Yim Chhay Ly. It’s thus difficult to know where the ruling party begins and the Hun family ends.
That said, in 2020 talk emerged that the current finance minister, Aun Pornmoniroth, could be the next prime minister, with him touted as the preferred choice of the party’s so-called technocratic wing. Last year, rumors spread that a significant part of the CPP’s Central Committee was opposed to Manet’s succession, fearful his inexperience could weaken the party’s chokehold on politics and jealous of the upstart’s meteoric rise.Cambodian Interior Minister Sar Kheng on May 25, 2015. Photo: AFP / TT News Agency / Nora Lorek / Sweden Out.
Throughout much of 2021, it was claimed that Interior Minister Sar Kheng, thought to be the second-most powerful person within the ruling party, was lining up his own bid to be Hun Sen’s replacement.
For starters, Manet’s formal nomination last month was a way for Hun Sen to fend off potential rivals. Hun Sen’s statement on the matter on December 2 all but confirmed he wants Manet to succeed him.
According to analysts, it was a power play by Hun Sen to reaffirm his primacy over the party and test the loyalty of those below him. Within hours of his announcement, scores of political and economic elites piled in to affirm their support for Manet.
Cambodia’s no longer independent newspapers filled their pages with support. Even Sar Kheng voiced his approval, although interestingly several days after the rest of the cabinet. The CPP Central Committee’s vote on Manet’s candidacy later in December was the formal confirmation.
Most likely, Manet will resign from the military just before the 2023 general election to run for office, and afterward will be given a senior cabinet position. Also at the CPP’s Central Committee meeting on December 24, the current defense minister, Tea Banh, was named as one of two new party vice-presidents.
It’s probable that Banh, 76, will be rotated out of frontline politics after the 2023 election and given a backstage position of power, while Manet will be handed the Defense Ministry to gain experience in cabinet politics. Most analysts expect Hun Sen to remain in power until at least the following general election in 2028, which will be used as a plebiscite on Manet’s candidacy.A Cambodian soldier salutes the Cambodian Minister of National Defense General Tea Banh during a drill at a military base in Kampong s
In one sense, the path to dynastic succession is straightforward. The CPP has no political challenger. In 2017, the authorities forcibly dissolved its only real opponent, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), after spuriously accusing it of plotting a US-backed coup.
Yet, the ruling party isn’t as harmonious as it often appears. A delicate equilibrium is needed to balance the disparate interests of its political and economic elites. Access to positions of power and backhanders must be counterpoised between the elite families.
The tycoons, who fund the CPP, must be rewarded but not allowed to grow too powerful. Factions are allowed to control provinces but these cannot turn into full-blown fiefdoms.
In recent decades, this balance has been held together by Hun Sen’s personalist rule. It’s the prime minister’s wont to involve himself in almost every area of public life – and his word is gospel – from instructing wayward children of tycoons to turn themselves into police, to awarding disgruntled students exam passes.
Some analysts reckon that parts of the state and bureaucracy are now averse to making any decision until Hun Sen has had his say on the matter.
But Manet won’t have such authority. He will still know everyone’s secrets, but his commands won’t resonate as loudly as his father’s. Some politicians and tycoons will undoubtedly test his mettle.
Ministries will try to gain more autonomy, as might provinces. Cracks will appear in the chains of command. As such, once Hun Sen steps down, politics will have to change.
Lao Mong Hay, the analyst, said the CPP Central Committee agreeing to this succession plan so early “seems to hint at getting the [next] cabinet to collectively develop their own policies and strategies to preserve and consolidate their power before they actually take it over.”
Manet’s succession will have to be coupled with a much wider generational succession, with the children of other current party grandees also moving up through the ranks.
In early December, Hun Sen said a “reserve cabinet” was being set up around Manet, composed of younger officials, many of whom are now secretaries or undersecretaries of state and who will likely rise to ministerial level once Manet succeeds to the premiership.
In theory, the current cabinet ministers surrounding Hun Sen will resign at the same time to allow an easy transition for Manet’s “reserve cabinet,” which will have had years to prepare.
But the inexperience of Manet and his younger party cadre mean they will likely have to continue relying on the old guard for advice and, in worst-case scenarios, actual leadership, analysts say.
Lao Mong Hay is doubtful that Manet and his “reserve” cabinet will be able to create their own agenda ahead of succession, nor be able to fully separate themselves from the old guard once in power.
“They must have heavy inputs from their elders,” he said. And Sophal Ear reckons it’s far from certain that Hun Sen will exit the stage once Manet becomes prime minister.Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (left) inspects troops with his son Lieutenant-General Hun Manet. Photo: Handout / AFP
“He might play the Lee Kuan Yew card and back-up his son as Minister Mentor or Senior Minister or Senior Lord,” Ear added, referring to the former Singaporean prime minister who resigned in 1990 but played a background role as non-executive senior minister.
Under a Manet leadership, party politics may have to move towards more consensus-based decision-making, which many in the CPP have likely forgotten since Hun Sen came to dominate the party in the 2000s.
Or the CPP will have to shift towards greater rule by the Hun family. The latter is unlikely, said Lao Mong Hay, noting that Manet will be under even more pressure to satisfy the interests of other political families, not only his own, once in power.
Because significant change is necessary, and that may involve trial and error, Hun Sen appears to now be preparing the groundwork for succession, even if Manet doesn’t actually take on the prime ministership until after the 2028 general election.
Although, Ear noted that he will be on standby in case his succession has to be brought forward. Hun Sen is now 69. The ruling party, and not only the Cambodian people, might need years to get used to how things will work differently once Hun Sen is no longer in charge.