PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Hun Sen served as Cambodia’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 communist Khmer Rouge fighter, Asia’s longest-serving leader, says he is ready to hand over the premiership to his eldest son, Hun Manet, a graduate of the US Military Academy at West Point, who heads the country’s military.
Tens of thousands of supporters gathered in a central square in the capital before dawn on Friday to hear the 45-year-old kick off at 7 a.m. for the CPP’s last day of campaigning before the vote.
With a warm smile and gentle tone, a stark contrast to his father’s stern gaze and military cadence, Hun Manet said the CPP had brought peace, stability and progress to the Cambodian people.
“To vote for the Cambodian People’s Party is to vote for yourselves,” he told the jubilant crowd, promising to bring Cambodia’s national pride back “to a level above the glorious Angkor era” of the Khmer Empire centuries ago.
With the only credible challenge to the CPP barred from participating in the elections on a technicality, Cambodians have little choice but to vote for the ruling party again. The arrests over the past week of several prominent opposition figures have helped to stifle any visible support for anyone but the CPP on the streets of Phnom Penh.
“The Cambodian authorities have spent the past five years trashing what remained of the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association,” Amnesty International’s Montse Ferrer said on Friday. “Many people feel compelled to participate in this election despite the fact that their party of choice is not on the ballot.”
There was, however, a palpable sense of excitement as Hun Manet made his way through the crowd of some 60,000 people shaking hands and taking selfies, before taking a position beside his wife in the back of a van for a long parade through the city.
Sin Dina, 16, one of many youngsters who showed up, jumped up and down and waved the Cambodian flag as Hun Manet slowly passed by, said it was the first time she had had the opportunity to see him in person.
“He looks like a gentleman, down to earth, approachable and well educated,” she said, adding that she only regretted being too young to vote. “He is a fitting successor to his father.”
Many in the crowd talked about Hun Manet’s upbringing – his bachelor’s degree at West Point being followed by a master’s degree at New York University and a doctorate in economics from Britain’s University of Bristol.
His journey has raised hopes among some in the West that he could bring about political change, but it will take more work to regain influence in the Southeast Asian country of 16.5 million people, given China’s strategic and economic importance, said John Bradford, a 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 Washington’s concerns is China’s involvement in building Cambodia’s naval base at Ream, which could give Beijing a strategically important military outpost in the Gulf of Thailand.
The land was opened up 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 naval destroyer, if the water is deep enough.
Regionally, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, chaired by Cambodia last year, criticized Phnom Penh for undermining its unity in disputes with China over territorial claims in the South China Sea.
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 Sen joined the 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.
Ly Chanthy, who braved a steady downpour to attend Hun Manet’s parade through the city on Friday, said she remembered the Khmer Rouge era and would be forever grateful to Hun Sen, and was happy to support her son.
“I will vote for the Cambodian People’s Party until I die,” the 58-year-old said, a Cambodian flag on a makeshift flagpole over her shoulder.
“I will never forget that he saved our lives from the Pol Pot regime.”
Under Hun Sen, Cambodia experienced an average annual economic growth of 7.7% between 1998 and 2019. It upgraded 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 bolstered the opposition, the country’s docile courts dissolved the main opposition party ahead of the 2018 elections, and over the past five years the government has bolstered any dissent while sending a message of peace and prosperity.
An element of “hardcore opposition” remains, but while a “silent majority” may want more options, most are comfortable enough in their jobs and lives not to be motivated to demand change, said Ou Virak, president of Phnom Penh’s Future Forum think tank.
With Hun Manet due to take over as prime minister and a massive replacement expected of top ministers, the election will bring a “generational change” to Cambodia’s leadership that could start a “honeymoon period” for international diplomacy, he said.
But people will be disappointed if they expect a sharp turn away from China, he added.
“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 and Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this story.