An autocratic Cambodian leader paves the way for his son, a West Point graduate and PhD in economics, to rule

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Cambodia’s Hun Sen served as his country’s autocratic prime minister for nearly four decades, during which time opposition was stifled and the country grew ever closer to China.

With his Cambodian People’s Party all but assured of another landslide victory in Sunday’s elections, it’s hard to imagine a sea change on the horizon. But the 70-year-old former Khmer Rouge communist fighter and Asia’s longest-serving leader says he is ready to hand over the prime ministership to his eldest son, Hun Manet, a four-star general who heads the country’s military.

A graduate of the American military academy at West Point, Hun Manet, 45, also holds a master’s degree from NYU and a doctorate in economics from the British University of Bristol. His speeches tend to praise his father’s government, but lack detail on the issues, so it’s unclear whether his track record could portend political change.

But it will take work for the West to regain influence in the Southeast Asian country of 16.5 million people, given China’s strategic and economic importance, said John Bradford, senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

“A Cambodia led by Hun Manet could very well be a stronger U.S. ally, but the U.S.-Cambodian relationship can only thrive if it is built on strong fundamentals of shared benefit and mutual respect,” Bradford said. “American diplomats should focus on these things.”

Top of a Western wish list would be an end to human rights abuses and the sidelining of political opposition, something Hun Sen escalated ahead of the election to the point that Human Rights Watch said it “no longer looks like a genuine democratic process.”

Internationally, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which Cambodia chaired last year, criticized it for undermining its unity in disputes with China over territorial disputes in the South China Sea, and the United States has expressed concern over China’s involvement in the construction of Cambodia’s Ream naval base that could give Beijing a strategically important military outpost in the Gulf of Thailand.

Ground was broken last year on Project Ream, and satellite imagery of ongoing construction from Planet Labs PBC taken about a month ago and analyzed by The Associated Press shows a pier now large enough to accommodate a destroyer, provided the water is deep enough.

It’s unclear when – or even if – Hun Sen will hand over to his son in the next five-year term, although most seem to think it will happen soon enough for Hun Manet to establish himself in the post before the next election.

Both men declined interview requests from The Associated Press.

Even when Hun Manet takes over, Bradford said that might mean no change, noting that educational and personal background don’t necessarily translate into leadership style or political stance.

“We have a dictator in North Korea who went to school in Switzerland,” he said. “His choices do not exactly reflect Swiss values.”

Hun Manet himself gave few clues, posting frequently on Facebook and Telegram like his father but revealing little about his political leanings.

And few think Hun Sen will fade into the woodwork, instead choosing now as a good time to hand over power so he can still maintain a large degree of sideline control, said Gordon Conochie, a researcher at Australia’s La Trobe University and author of “A Tiger Rules the Mountain: Cambodia’s Pursuit of Democracy,” which was published this month.

“It means that while his son is establishing his own authority as prime minister, he still has a relatively young and healthy – physically and mentally – father behind him,” Conochie said.

“The reality is that as long as Hun Sen is there, no one is going to move against them. And Hun Sen will be the man in charge, even if his son is the prime minister.

Hun Manet is also just one of five relatives of Hun Sen running for the CPP in this election, including Hun Manet’s brother, Hun Many.

Hun Sen joined Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge at 18 as they fought for power, losing his left eye in the final battle for Phnom Penh in 1975.

When a series of purges within the genocidal communist regime, responsible for the deaths of some 1.7 million Cambodians, put his own life in danger, he fled to neighboring Vietnam, returning to help oust his former comrades in 1979 alongside an invading Vietnamese army.

In his late twenties, he was appointed foreign minister by the Vietnamese occupation forces, and in 1985 he became prime minister, the youngest in the world at the time.

Over the decades, he tightened his grip on power while ushering in a free market economy and helping to end three decades of civil war.

“The defining characteristic of Hun Sen’s career has been his ideological and political flexibility,” said Hun Sen’s biographer Sebastian Strangio.

“He is a leader who ruled at the head of a communist government in the 1980s, made a very rapid transition to the democratic system that the UN established in the early 1990s, and since then has shown an astonishing ability to dodge and weave and adapt on the fly in order to consolidate his grip on power.”

With an average annual economic growth of 7.7% between 1998 and 2019, Cambodia moved from low-income to lower-middle-income status in 2015, and hopes to reach middle-income status by 2030, according to the World Bank.

But at the same time, the gap between rich and poor widened dramatically, deforestation spread at an alarming rate, and Hun Sen’s Cambodian allies and foreign investors grabbed land on a massive scale.

As discontent swelled the opposition, the country’s docile courts dissolved the main opposition party ahead of the 2018 elections, securing victory for Hun Sen’s party, and the country’s national election commission barred him from the only credible challenge in Sunday’s election on a technicality.

“Draconian laws, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, and judicial harassment, including politically motivated mass trials against more than 100 opposition members and dozens of human rights defenders, perpetuate autocratic rule and silence dissent,” Human Rights Watch wrote of Hun Sen’s methods.

Although an element of “hardcore opposition” remains, in the five years since the last election, more and more people have become members of a “silent majority” who might want to see more options but are comfortable enough in their jobs and lives that they are not motivated to demand change, said Ou Virak, president of Phnom Penh’s Future Forum think tank.

“They don’t care enough to push for anything, and probably accept that it is,” he said.

With Hun Manet due to take office as prime minister and a massive replacement of top ministers expected, the election will bring a “generational change” to Cambodia’s leadership, Ou Virak said.

It could create a “honeymoon period” for international diplomacy with younger, Western-trained civil servants better equipped to hold “global conversations on issues and topics”.

But people will be disappointed if they expect a sharp turn away from China, he said.

“China is still Cambodia’s main financial backer, Cambodia’s main partner superpower,” he said. “So I think any movement west will be limited, because you can’t alienate your main supporter.”


Associated Press reporters Sopheng Cheang in Phnom Penh, Jerry Harmer in Bangkok and Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this story.

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