That Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen wants to hand power to one of his progeny is hardly a new theory. At least since the late 2000s, American officials have clearly thought Hun Manet, his eldest son, was being tutored to take office. Leaked diplomatic cables reveal that, as one states in 2008, “Hun Manet was mentioned as playing an increased role” in politics, and another from 2012 says that “Hun Manet appears to be groomed to take over a la Quaddafi’s son.”
Such rumors haven’t died down since then; in October, Hun Sen added fuel to the fire when he said that his eldest son is “the possible future leader of Cambodia.” Yet it is today becoming increasingly more relevant; late last year Hun Manet was promoted to the second-highest ranking position in the military, though he now appears to operate as the de-facto head of the armed forces, and was given a seat on the ruling party’s elite Permanent Committee, its decision-making body. It is also becoming more relevant as the ruling party tightens its stranglehold over politics and as Cambodia increasingly finds itself as a proxy between saber-rattling America and China.
If it is to be assumed that Hun Manet is gearing up to become the next leader, even if that takes place in several years, the interesting and important question then becomes how the ruling party prepares for this.
The question is already being asked in various ways. Indeed, the real interest of domestic Cambodian politics is now not between the ruling CPP and the dissolved opposition CNRP, or the ever more tiresome contest between Hun Sen and Sam Rainsy. The interest is in relationships within the ruling party, and between the ruling party and the military over which will become the chief source of authority in Cambodia (although the distinction between the party and the military is becoming a distinction without much of a difference).
Of significance, for starters, is that we are talking about a possible succession of an unelected military official as the next head of state. So far in its recent history, civilian politicians have been dominant over the military. Yet we now seen Hun Manet taking upon more authority while, at the same time, the government is busy streamlining the armed forces, reducing the number of generals and seemingly making the military hierarchy more vertically pointed toward the senior leadership.
One theory with respect to this goes that Hun Sen wants to shift greater power to the military to protect his own interests from some indignant members of the ruling party. Moreover, last year saw the three most senior (and aging) military officials retire to run for office; when they subsequently won seats in parliament, they quickly stepped down and were given government positions. With Hun Manet already having control of several aspects of the Cambodian security services, including the armed forces, military police, and secret police, some have already begun concluding that a military regime has effectively emerged in all but name.
Hun Sen has invariably claimed that he will remain in power until at least the early 2020s, if not later. At 66, and with his constitution, that is not too difficult to believe. Yet events of the past indicate that he has no intention of handing over power electorally – only the most sanguine of spectators would think that a peaceful change of government is possible in Cambodia. That leaves succession.
To be sure, if he wants to retain some authority once away from the limelight, and ensure his family maintains its wealth and prestige, it has to be carefully managed. And while there is no evidence that Hun Manet does not enjoy some degree of popular support and also little evidence to suggest other political elites outside the Hun clan have the power to stop whatever successionist plans Hun Sen has, these are nonetheless uncertain variables.
Future historians may have far greater access to sources to study the networks of the CPP, but even today, with the limited information available to us first drafters of history, it possible to say that the Hun family has the widest and most authoritative network in the whole country. Indeed, it is almost impossible to imagine the CPP without the Hun family, but not the other way around. To give a briefest of explanations: Hun Manet and Hun Manith control the military; Hun Many the CPP’s youth wing; Hun Mana the media and private sector; Buny Rany, Hun Sen’s wife, the charitable sector. And then there are the numerous nieces, nephews and cousins, and the various associates secured through political endogamy. (To see the scale of this latticework, one should read Global Witness’s 2016 “Hostile Takeover” report.)
What is important is that all this would presumably be inherited by Hun Manet, meaning that there would be a high stakes contest for the future of this network. If someone within the CPP was to oppose a dynastic handover by Hun Sen, the network would crumble and along with it the ruling party’s control over society.
Another reason why this issue is important is that it looks as though Hun Manet is quickly making all the moves one would expect from a leader-in-waiting. In the last six months, he has made visits to China, Thailand, Russia, the United States and Vietnam – effectively, all of Cambodia’s main partners except Japan. This could be simply familiarizing himself with his counterparts, now that he is the military’s de-facto chief. Or it could be about acquainting himself with diplomacy and developing connections with foreign governments in time for succession.
Apart from touring the world, he has also been busy touring Cambodia. Last year, he reportedly stepped up the number of social engagements he performed for the ruling party. In recent months, he has removed his military uniform to open new pagodas, schools, and libraries, and to preside over graduation ceremonies, events his father regularly engages in. I also hear that he has also becoming more active among Cambodia’s numerous NGOs and charities, offering his support and pledging financial assistance to some. And then there’s the fact that he has tended to stay away from political debates. Although in February he did launch an angry tirade against Sam Rainsy, the CNRP’s acting president, he has tended to remain quiet on this front, which means he isn’t tarnishing himself with the current political crisis.
Equally important in a society where Facebook is king and the ruling party quickly learned how to harness social media, once the terrain of the political opposition, Hun Manet’s Facebook page now has more than 600,000 followers. While a mere fraction of his father’s 11.5 million followers, it is far more than almost all other ruling party officials. By comparison, Interior Minister Sar Kheng, who is considered a factional rival to Hun Sen, has only around 120,000 Facebook followers; Hun Many, his brother who heads the CPP’s youth wing, has just over 134,000 followers. Much like his father’s Facebook persona, Hun Manet’s page includes photos of himself hard at work, avuncular moments with ordinary Cambodians and family pics. In almost every photo, he dons a wide smile.
But arguably the thing that might swing it for Hun Manet, and steady the CPP boat if his father does ever decide to relinquish office, is that he is a candidate who offers something to everyone. More generally, he has most likely inherited his father’s way of politics: Give your enemies only limited room for maneuver; appease powerful foreign allies; liberalize the economy and ensure a decent standard of living; and make sure friends in powerful positions are well kept.
With respect to individual constituencies, to the Cambodian people, he is the continuation of the status-quo. To the CPP elites, he is the custodian of the military, and therefore the party’s source of violence. To China, he is a well-educated man who knows that Cambodia cannot separate itself from Beijing’s suzerainty anytime soon. To Vietnam, he can be expected to uphold the two nations’ historic ties, largely built on military relations. And to the United States, he is a fluent English-speaker, West Point graduate and potentially more liberal than his father – indeed, one hears Hun Manet now being talked about by members of the international community the same way they used to describe Sar Kheng in the 2000s, as a slightly more agreeable alternative to Hun Sen.