Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen, in power for 38 years, has developed a unique succession plan. But ensuring that his eldest son Hun Manet can take over when he retires is a circle that can’t be squared.
A whole generation of Cambodian leadership needs to be replaced. The current generation came to power at the same time as Hun Sen when Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime was overthrown in 1979. This group is made up of veterans who are now in their 70s and 80s. It needs to be replaced by a younger and better educated generation that can deal with modern challenges.
Why has such a generational transition not unfolded spontaneously, progressively, and smoothly over the last 20 years as in other countries, including communist Vietnam and China?
The first reason concerns Hun Sen himself. He has held power for much too long. His political longevity goes together with his authoritarianism in a country where there are no limits on mandates, nor age limits for national leaders. Only three other national leaders can compete with Hun Sen for political longevity and authoritarianism: the president of Equatorial Guinea, Théodoros Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, Paul Biya in Cameroon, and Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni. In power since 1979, 1982, and 1986, respectively, they are political fossils who have done their countries more harm than good.
The second reason relates to Hun Sen’s very particular style of leadership. He has crushed his potential rivals with no hesitation and resorted to violence, notably in the bloody coup of 1997 and the countless political assassinations that have punctuated his rule. Hun Sen has remained in power for so long through fear and intimidation.
Yet he also has a persuasiveness and charisma lacking in other leading figures in the ruling, formerly communist Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). This mixture of authoritarianism and charisma makes Hun Sen an unusual leader, who cannot easily find a replacement at a desired time.
Hun Manet Lacks Stature
Hun Manet is far from having his father’s charisma. Neither does he have his authoritarian bent and penchant for brutality. Hun Sen’s historical experience has made him prone to the use of violence to stay in power. Hun Manet’s modern education is not sufficient to allow him to take over from his father, as he has numerous potential rivals who are just as competent and who he cannot easily eliminate, especially when Hun Sen is no longer there to provide paternal support.
Hun Sen, now officially 70 years of age, has waited too long before deciding to hand over power. That means the succession can’t be just an individual affair, but must be collegial. He has ruled for almost 40 years with practically the same team around him. Most of his government team is roughly the same age as him and is due for retirement. The whole edifice would fall if Hun Sen retired by himself, especially as he wants his son to take over. The latter is already 45 but has no experience in government and has not demonstrated leadership talent in any area. Though he has been fast-tracked to the position of deputy commander-in-chief of the armed forces, bypassing all the usual stages, his personality is much duller than that of his father, from whose shadow he has found it difficult to emerge. The truth is that no one ever asked him if he wanted to take over from Hun Sen.
A succession by Hun Manet strains plausibility. How can a relative youngster without any government experience and any historical feat of arms to draw on give orders to veterans of his father’s generation? Hun Sen is acutely aware of the psychological, human, and political problems inherent in his succession plan. He has concluded that the only solution is to change the whole government team at once, replacing all the fathers with their eldest sons. This is a supreme form of corruption designed to buy the loyalty of the families that make up Cambodia’s political, military, and financial elite via institutional nepotism. Hun Sen’s version of tropical fascism harks back to feudalism.
An Impossible “Dream Team”
Since approval by the CPP two years ago of Hun Manet’s candidacy for prime minister “at the right time,” Hun Sen has implied that, as soon as possible, he will present the composition of the next government to be headed by his son. This is imagined as a “dream team,” which will get enthusiastic backing from the population as well as guarantee the stability of the regime once Hun Sen hands over power.
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. Within each family, there are often children who are competing among themselves, which risks making the power struggle even more ferocious. As a trial run, Hun Sen has already made some nominations such as those of Say Sam Al, the son of the Vice-President of the CPP and Senate President Say Chhum as minister of the environment; Dith Tina, son of the influential CPP Politburo member and head of the Supreme Court Dith Munty as minister of agriculture; and Tea Seiha, son of defense minister Tea Banh, to the post of governor of Siem Reap province. Hun Sen stopped there because he knew making more nominations risked becoming explosive. Too bad for the “dream team.”
We must not forget the accumulated frustration, anger, and bitterness that the CPP old guard feels for Hun Sen and the way that he has hoarded power over the long term.
As he approaches retirement, the autocrat has found nothing better than to push the old guard to retire at the same time as him. Being replaced by one’s own children in posts under the children of Hun Sen is small consolation at best. At worst, it is a final insult, which means bowing down to the same family across the generations. Cambodia, after all, is not North Korea and Hun Sen has not yet been deified, like Kim Il-sung and his offspring.
Sar Kheng, minister of the interior and Hun Sen’s principal potential rival within the CPP, has been the least enthusiastic in his support for the candidacy of Hun Manet. His own son, Sar Sokha, is currently “just” secretary of state for education. Sar Kheng would like to hand over to him the ministry of the interior, but that is a strategic post that Hun Sen wants, for security reasons, to hand over to someone in his inner circle.
Similarly, Minister of Defense Tea Banh would like his son Tea Seiha to take over from him, but this again is a strategic post that needs to go to someone who Hun Sen fully trusts. This could be Hun Manet himself, who could be allowed to hold multiple government posts in the name of security. Tea Banh, who does not act like a yes man, is currently the only person in Cambodia who Hun Sen does not have the means to stop, and the two men know it. In such a cesspool, Hun Sen’s succession will be an uncertain and chaotic process in which he finally will be confronted with the consequences of his past choices.