As youth-led protests have rocked Thailand’s military-dominated government over the past month, breaching the “taboo” of openly criticizing the country’s monarchy, in neighboring Cambodia the ruling party is busy trying to recast its image as a “mass movement” attuned to the needs of Cambodia’s young population.
Photos shared on Facebook of the latest meeting of the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP)’s youth wing are what one might expect: a riot of selfies and beaming smiles. Yet many of the faces in these images are oddly unyouthful; indeed, they included an abundance of receding hairlines and expanding waistlines. Despite the average Cambodian being just 25.6 years old, the CPP’s definition of youth appears to mean anyone under 50.
That includes the likes of Hun Manet, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s eldest son, who was promoted from vice-president to president of the CPP’s youth wing in June. It’s an open secret that Hun Sen wants to hand power to one of his sons, most likely Manet, and in the past 12 months has tentatively said as much. (Refer to my previous pieces on Manet for more on this backstory, in particular: “Hun Manet: The Next Prime Minister of Cambodia?”) Whether that’s possible any time soon is one of the main questions running through the Phnom Penh grapevine. But rather than seeing this as a simple handover of the prime ministerial mantle, it should instead be seen in broader terms as a generational handover within Cambodia’s ruling party.
The 42-year-old Manet is the de-facto military chief, has sat on the CPP’s elite Permanent Committee since 2018, and now regularly fills in for his father on tours during which he opens schools, hands out degrees and poses for avuncular selfies with members of the public. Overlook, if you will, that the de-facto military leader is now the official head of the ruling party’s youth wing and parades around wearing the CPP’s emblem on his clothes. This is Cambodia, after all, where there is no meaningful distinction between the ruling party and state institutions. The Supreme Court chief, Dith Munty, who ordered the dissolution of the country’s only viable opposition party in 2017, sits on the ruling party’s elite Permanent Committee, after all. So no change with Hun Manet’s newest role.
Yet a dynastic succession is far from straightforward. There’s no sure way for Hun Sen to fend off factional rivalry and, perhaps, internal rebellion, if he merely hands over power to his son and the rest of the party’s old-guard stay where they are—or, more accurately, if their own children fail to move up the ranks along with Manet. A grandee like Sar Kheng, 69, who has held his fiefdom at the Interior Ministry since 1992, has little desire to be pipped for the top job by an inexperienced upstart more than two decades his junior. But that bitter pill would be easier to swallow if Sar Kheng and other party grandees—such as Defense Minister Tea Banh, 74, or Senate President Say Chhum, 75—were also to step back from front-line politics alongside Hun Sen as their own children take the limelight.
Many CPP offspring are already on an upwards trajectory. For example, Sar Kheng’s son, 40-year-old Sar Sokha, holds a clutch of senior positions: he is secretary of state at the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport, a lawmaker for the CPP, the head of Cambodia’s football organization, and vice-president of the Union of Youth Federations of Cambodia (a supposedly apolitical group run by Hun Many, another of Hun Sen’s sons.) If you were to plot every dominant political family, you would find nearly all their children are occupying some important political or business function.
Yet, for now, these “princelings”, including Manet, remain on the second or third-rung of the hierarchical ladder. The only one who has made it into the cabinet so far is Say Chhum’s son Say Sam Al, 40, who has served as minister of environment since 2013. The next youngest cabinet member is Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron, 58, who is considered something of a rising technocrat. Many of the princelings who currently occupy secretary of state or undersecretary of state positions, I hear, would expect to move into more serious positions, chiefly as ministers, should Manet get the top job.
Such a generational handover of power—necessary in any eventuality, given the advanced age of most of Hun Sen’s cabinet—would solve another succession problem. As noted recently by The Diplomat’s new Southeast Asia Editor Sebastian Strangio, political instincts aren’t necessarily heritable. He pointed out that Norodom Ranariddh—the son of former King-cum-political leader Norodom Sihanouk who dominated Cambodia’s politics from the 1950s until defanged by Hun Sen in the late 1990s—was an incompetent operator who took the royalist FUNCINPEC party from winning a United Nations-organized election in 1993 to its current state of irrelevance.
All that’s true, but a key point of difference is that Ranariddh lacked control of the institutions his father once dominated. That wouldn’t be true for Hun Manet. Were he to inherit the top job, he would take over a party that has crippled its only real political opponent, has absolute control over the National Assembly and Senate, rules almost every important institution in the country, has the loyalty of most of the business world, and is feared by most of the Cambodian population. Furthermore, Hun Manet could count on one brother who controls the military’s intelligence operations, another brother who runs many of the party’s civil society organizations, a sister who dominates the media and business world, and a mother who dominates the CPP’s charity wing. Any comparison to Ranariddh, then, is only partially applicable.
A successful transfer of power thus hinges not just on whether Hun Manet is personally ready for the post, but whether the same can also be said of the party’s institutions and power-brokers. It’s been pointed out often enough that Hun Manet will never enjoy the same stature as his father among the party’s veterans, nor will he occupy his father’s role in the meshed patronage networks that link Cambodian politics and business.
But he does have his own networks, some formed within the military over the past decade, and now increasingly among the younger generation of CPP officials—something his new role as CPP youth leader will likely enhance. In this role, Manet is making himself the lynchpin in his own network of younger party officials (many the children of party grandees), as well as a younger generation of bureaucrats, academics, journalists and business tycoons— all of whom can expect to rise in Hun Manet’s wake, and all of whom Manet will need to rise if he is to establish his effective control over Cambodia’s powerful networks and cliques.