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What to expect from Cambodia's new 'dynastic' prime minister

August 22, 2023

After almost 40 years, Cambodia has a new prime minister: The outgoing prime minister's son. But Hun Sen is expected to maintain some control even after leaving office.

Hun Manet attending a ceremony of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces at the Defense Ministry in Phnom Penh
Cambodian army chief and eldest son of outgoing Prime Minister Hun Sen is set to take over his father's roleImage: Heng Sinith/AP/picture alliance/dpa

Power has changed hands in Cambodia for the first time in almost four decades on Tuesday — but how much of a change this will be remains an open question.

Hun Manet, the 45-year-old son of outgoing Prime Minister Hun Sen, is taking over from his father.

Hun Sen has led Cambodia for nearly forty years and was one of the longest-serving leaders in the world. He won another five-year term as the country's leader in July's elections, with the ruling Cambodia People's Party (CPP) running virtually unopposed and winning the vast majority of seats.

But this was shortly followed by Hun Sen's widely expected  decision to step down and hand over the premiership to his son. Cambodia's King Norodom Sihamoniapproved the move earlier in August.

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Hun Manet, the prime minister's eldest son, is a member of the ruling Cambodia People's Party Standing Committee and has been the commander of the Royal Cambodian Army since 2018.

Observers are waiting to see if he will stray from Hun Sen's strongman approach.

Continuation of 'autocratic' rule

Lee Morgenbesser, a political scientist and fellow at the Australian Research Council specializing in politics and authoritarianism in Southeast Asia, said the appointment is an example of the influence and power Hun Sen has wielded over the past forty years.

"Hun Manet's appointment was made possible by the severely autocratic and highly personalized form of politics built by his father, Hun Sen," Morgenbesser told DW.

"Having spent that last four decades banishing political opponents, monopolizing the media landscape, disempowering civil society organisations, crushing mass protests, and arbitrarily rescinding the political rights and civil liberties of citizens, Hun Sen made sure he would have the final say on who succeeded him and when."

What is Hun Sen's legacy in Cambodia?

Hun Sen, who came to power after Cambodia had been devastated by civil war and genocide, has led the Southeast Asian country through decades of major transformation. But the former Khmer Rouge battalion commander has faced harsh criticism for his authoritarian tendencies and crackdowns on political rivals, with opponents saying he runs Cambodia like a dictatorship and has hampered the country's ability to hold free and fair elections.

Hun Sen, 71, has long campaigned for his son to be the next prime minister, a move critics have called a dynastic succession. 

But Morgenbesser said Hun Sen's influence will continue to be a major factor in Cambodia even after stepping down as prime minister. 

"Whenever hereditary succession occurs in a dictatorship, there is a tendency to give the new leader the benefit of the doubt. The misguided assumption is that he won't be as awful as his father," Morgenbesser said.

"Western diplomats typically speak of the new dictators' arrival as an 'opportunity' to 'reset' relations," Morgenbesser added. "While Hun Manet will now bask in the glow of this optimism, there is no historical evidence to suggest the sons of dictators are better news, particularly since Hun Sen will remain in the background. In this instance, it is authority that is being transferred, not power."

After the appointment of his son, Hun Sen announced he will become president of the senate for Cambodia and act as head of state when the Cambodian king is overseas.

What does the Cambodian opposition in exile say?

Vanna Hay, a leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Movement in Japan, a political wing of the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), thinks Hun Manet does not "deserve" to be a politician, let alone the prime minister.

"To me, Hun Manet has no real ability to be the prime minister," he told DW, adding that all he has done is used his father's power to expand his influence.

"He's not [deserving] to be politician, because he has no experience in politics," Vanna said.

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Cambodia's relations with the West, particularly the United States, have deteriorated in recent years since the ruling CPP dissolved Cambodia's largest opposition party, the CNRP.

Hun Sen has since shifted Cambodia's relations substantially towards China following the fallout in 2017. Beijing has invested heavily in Cambodia's infrastructure and continues to base Chinese military troops in the country. China is now Cambodia's largest trading partner.

Meanwhile, Western relations continue to sour: The US, the European Union and the United Nations all condemned the most recent elections as neither free nor fair. Hun Sen's CPP won all but 5 of the 125 seats in parliament after banning opposition parties.

A new generation

But Sebastian Strangio, Southeast Asia editor at The Diplomat and author of the book "Hun Sen's Cambodia," believes the appointment of Hun Manet could result in better relations with the West.

"Hun Manet's background is very different to that of his father, whose political outlook and methods were profoundly shaped by Cambodia's history of conflict and upheaval," Strangio said.

"There is a good chance that there will be an atmospheric shift in Cambodian politics," he added. "Crucially, Hun Manet also lacks Hun Sen's deep resentments at past episodes of Western policy, which could make him better at dealing with the United States and other Western governments."

But Strangio also questioned how much Hun Manet would be able to achieve within Cambodia's political framework.

"His room for maneuver will be tightly circumscribed by the nature of the Cambodian political system, which requires that he maintain, and periodically renew, the loyalty of powerbrokers in the political establishment, business elite, and security forces," he told DW.

"His individual decisions will be less important than the structure — the patronage-based political system over which Hun Manet will hold sway, but over which he will exercise only limited control," he explained.

'Hard time to lead'

Chhengpor Aun, a visiting fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies who focuses on Cambodian politics, agrees that Hun Manet's premiership will likely be a continuation of his father's iron-fisted rule.

"His mission is to preserve and build on what are perceived as his father's legacies and achievements," Cchengpor said.

He also called the succession "dynastic" and said it will test the ruling party's "unity, resilience and survivability" amid economic struggles and international scrutiny on human rights.

"It is a hard time to lead," Cchengpor told DW. "The nation's economy is still foot-dragging to find its way back to pre-pandemic momentum while international reputation is somewhat tarnished by unaddressed human trafficking issues related to scam operations."

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Edited by: Alex Berry

Tommy Walker
Tommy Walker Reporter focusing on Southeast Asian politics, conflicts, economy and society.@tommywalkerco