Prime Minister Hun Sen is ready to step back from frontline politics after a general election in July, raising the chances that Cambodia will soon have a new leader for the first time in 38 years.
The plan is now for Hun Sen, 70, to retire as premier immediately after the general election on July 23 – in which his ruling party is assured an outright victory – or shortly afterward when a new, youthful cabinet has been formed, several sources told Asia Times.
The cogs now appear to be turning much more quickly in order to set up a swift transition to a government led by his eldest son Hun Manet, 45, who in late 2021 was nominated by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to be its future prime ministerial candidate.
Hun Manet, the commander of the Royal Cambodian Army and deputy commander-in-chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, was promoted to four-star general on March 17.
On the same day, Hun Manith, another of Hun Sen’s sons and the current military intelligence chief, was promoted to deputy commander of the Army, just below his brother in rank, it was revealed on March 21. He was promoted to the rank of minister in December.
Asia Times reported earlier this month on alleged disputes between the families of Hun Sen and Defense Minister Tea Banh over appointments in the defense ministry.
The speed of the promotions of Hun Sen’s children, as well as other military personnel announcements by the prime minister this week, suggests he has now consolidated his authority over the fractious side of the ruling party.
After years of what seemed a slow and plodding succession process, Hun Sen is now in overdrive to ensure that nothing derails his plans. Having already solidified a de facto one-party, authoritarian state after major crackdowns on the political opposition and civil society in 2017, authorities are yet again tightening the screws on all political activity.
Cambodia’s main opposition party has been defanged through ridiculously costly lawsuits, while most political activism has been silenced. Two opposition-aligned activists were arrested within hours of posting critical comments of Hun Sen online this week.
Hun Sen has gone on the assault against news outlets that report on Hun Manet in anything but glowing terms. Voice of Democracy, one of Cambodia’s last independent outlets, was forcibly closed last month after it alleged that Hun Manet, rather than his prime ministerial father, had signed off on government policy.
Last week, Hun Sen challenged Cambodia Daily Khmer after it alleged Hun Manet had links to the illegal timber trade. There are rumors that CamboJA News, another independent outlet, could be next for the chop.
Speaking last week, Hun Sen said his career as a national leader has spanned 44 years, including his tenure as foreign minister after 1979, and that it was “too long already.”
A fortune teller, he said, had predicted that he would die at the age of 93, but that he would want to retire long before death, according to an Associated Press report.
“Now we have found the young generation that will come to replace us. We should better hand over to them and just stay behind them,” he said.
According to Ou Virak, president of the Phnom Penh-based Future Forum think tank, it previously seemed most likely that the succession would happen sometime after July’s general election, although immediately afterward was the second most probable scenario.
“It’s swapping now,” Ou Virak said. “The best case scenario for the CPP and for the new generation is one where Hun Manet and the proposed cabinet, along with their manifesto, are presented to the people to seek their support.”
“This is crucial for the success of the young and new leadership as they will then be viewed as having a mandate from the people,” he added.
There are other benefits of an early transfer of power. The economy is in rude health, with the World Bank predicting 5.3% GDP growth this year. Relations with China, Cambodia’s main patron, are evergreen and investment funds are flowing.
It also seems, at least for now, that Western democracies won’t sanction Cambodia too forcefully over its authoritarian lurch and allegations that it has secretly agreed to a deal to allow China exclusive access to its largest naval base, potentially giving Beijing a strategic southern flank in the contested South China Sea.
“Hun Sen has just made strong hints he might be done after this next election,” Sophal Ear, associate dean and associate professor at the Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University, said.
“He toyed with it publicly, but he was clear that he’d continue to lurk in the background. What does retirement mean in that case? The title is handed off, but the power isn’t.”
After stepping down as prime minister, Hun Sen has said he will stay on as the ruling party’s president, a position that now has greater powers after constitutional changes last year.
Those amendments mean the ruling party can “directly request the king to approve the new prime minister without prior agreement from the chairman of the National Assembly”, Sam Seun, a political analyst at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, pointed out.
Hun Sen may seek to become the next president of the National Assembly or of the Senate, the latter of which would also make him acting head of state when King Norodom Sihamoni is out of the country, as he often is. It would also give Hun Sen extrajudicial powers in the event of a political crisis.
A quick transition from father to son would give Hun Sen ample time to keep a watchful eye over Hun Manet’s premiership, said a source who requested anonymity.
Hun Manet also serves as president of the ruling CPP’s youth wing and now spends most of his days in civilian clothes pontificating on politics when opening new pagodas or schools or construction sites.
His Facebook page has 1.1 million followers, a number surpassed only by his father’s social media following. His acumen was raised during the pandemic when the Samdech Techo Young Volunteer Doctors Association (TYDA), an ostensibly independent organization run by Hun Manet and his wife, played a key role in vaccination.
Hun Manet is now rarely out of the news headlines. The party has published several laudatory books about him in recent years, while the government-friendly press is equally panegyric. The Khmer Times recently published an editorial headline: “Hun Manet, the hope of Cambodia.”
But there are still pundits who reckon Hun Sen’s long-laid dynastic plans could go awry. After all, there are few examples across the world of successful dynastic handovers, especially those involving politicians who have served as premier for decades.
There are claims that Hun Sen will freeze when the time comes, wary of actually giving up power as he sees Cambodia’s fortunes as intertwined with his own leadership. Now 70 years old, he has been in frontline politics since the age of 27.
Writing in the Diplomat this week, the exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy argued that Hun Sen “has waited too long before deciding to hand over power.”
The main problem, Rainsy added, is how to share the spoils of power with the other political families who accepted Hun Manet’s ascension on the proviso that their own children will also rise through the ranks and maintain their family’s access to money and influence.
“But the potential candidates are much more numerous than the available positions, and an equilibrium between the competing elite families will be very hard to find. These elite families are jealous of their prerogatives,” Sam Rainsy wrote.
But the “generational succession” is already taking root. Last year, Dith Tina, the son of Supreme Court justice Dith Munty, was named the new agriculture minister.
This month, Chea Serey, the daughter of the National Bank of Cambodia’s governor Chea Chanto, was promoted to his deputy, which allows her an easy passage to become the central bank’s new head in the near-term future.
It’s widely expected that Sar Sokha, a youth leader and secretary of state for education, will take over as interior minister from his father Sar Kheng. He joined his father on a visit to Vietnam earlier this month, just as Hun Manet accompanied his father on a visit to Beijing last month to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping.
It’s also predicted that Hun Many, another of Hun Sen’s sons and a parliamentarian, will become minister in charge of the civil service, a position that will give the Hun family control over the vast bureaucracy.
While assurances have been made to other political families that their prodigy won’t fall to the wayside with Hun Manet’s rise, it remains the case that the Hun family is by far the most powerful of these clans.
As such, the succession process depends on sharing the spoils of power as well as making sure that the Hun family remains first among equals.
Follow David Hutt on Twitter at @davidhuttjourno