Cambodia’s Minister for Economy and Finance Aun Pornmoniroth has emerged as a potential successor to Prime Minister Hun Sen following the recent ASEAN summits, where he represented his government in the Cambodian leader’s absence.
Hun Sen, the region’s longest serving leader, has dominated Cambodian politics for more than 35 years but missed the ASEAN summit after he entered quarantine amid a possible COVID-19 outbreak after a diplomatic visit, known here as the “November 3 Incident.”
Sources close to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) said that Aun Pornmoniroth, a widely respected technocrat, was chosen because he is among the favorites for any eventual change in leadership, a routine source of speculation in the capital.
Much of the speculation thus far has centered on two of Hun Sen’s sons: his eldest son, 43-year-old Hun Manet, a West Point graduate and a four-star general in the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF), is widely seen as the leading candidate, while Hun Manith, a 39-year-old RCAF brigadier general, has also been cited as a potential successor.
Speculation again flared mid-year that Hun Manet was being groomed for the top job after escorting his father on several official trips abroad, including to China.
But Hun Sen was quick to respond saying there were several contenders qualified to replace him, and that his sons would have to deal with that. Of Manet, he said: “The first concern is whether the party would accept him. The second is the general elections.”
“In Cambodia, there are other candidates apart from Hun Manet,” he added.
CPP insiders say Hun Sen has always preferred the Singapore model, where long-serving leader Lee Kuan Yew retired as prime minister in 1990 and adopted the role of senior minister mentor, which allowed him to exercise influence from the sidelines.
His son, the current prime minister Lee Hsien Loong, had been favored to take his father’s job. But the senior Lee believed his son still lacked experience and backed close confidante Goh Chok Tong instead. Goh led the island state until 2004.
It was only then that Lee Hsien Loong took over.
Hun Sen had once favored Say Chhum as a potential replacement, if required. Say Chhum is an old-school communist and a well liked senior member of the politburo. But at 75, he has signaled his preference for retirement.
At 55 years of age, Aun Pornmoniroth has all the right credentials and was admitted to the ranks of the CPP politburo in 2018, alongside Hun Manet.
“He’s a very strong technocrat,” one close CPP observer said. “And he’s favored for the leadership if the situation arises. [Hun Sen’s] sons are considered a bit young, the others are considered a bit old.”
Aun Pornmoniroth also has a PhD in philosophy and political sciences from Moscow State University and is fluent in English and Russian.
But it’s his economic credentials that have impressed many observers.
He has held the post of Economic Advisor to Hun Sen since 1998, chaired the Supreme National Economic Council since 2001 and has served as Minister of Economy and Finance since 2013. He is also one of 10 deputy prime ministers, a position neither son holds.
Since a 30-year civil war ended in 1998, Cambodia has undergone unprecedented growth with standards of living rising almost across the board, but the economy has taken a major hit on several fronts due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Tourism has collapsed and the once lucrative garment industry is in a desperate situation. The European Union has withdrawn some trade perks because of the county’s human rights record and also listed Cambodia as a “high risk” country for money laundering, which could result in sanctions.
The government has allocated $1.2 billion to bolster the economy.
A capable technocrat with economic nous could serve Cambodia well. But Hun Sen has made it clear he intends to remain in power at least until the next election, due in 2023. A transfer of power is possible ahead of the poll in 2028, or afterwards, assuming his health holds.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt