Southeast Asia’s leaders generally do not go gentle into that good night, as a poet once wrote. At 97 years old, Mahathir Mohammad hasn’t lost any of his enthusiasm for racism and political bumbling, although it could also be said that he had few mental faculties to lose in old age. Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew remained active behind the scenes until his death in 2015, aged 91. Who knows what will happen in Myanmar, but the sensible punter wouldn’t bet against the return (someday) of Aung San Suu Kyi, now 77.
Succession is gathering pace in Cambodia. Prime Minister Hun Sen, 70, and now the world’s longest-serving head of government, will someday soon hand over the premiership to his eldest son, Hun Manet. On occasions, his mind flits to thoughts of what he’ll do once he steps down. In 2020, he spoke about becoming a “lawyer to further help vulnerable people.” A week ago, he said he is now thinking of running to become a commune chief because he wants to know more about how local government works.
No one, including himself, really expects Hun Sen to retire from politics after stepping down as prime minister. He is the honorary president of so many associations that they’ll occupy his time, and some genuinely do matter. He has already said he won’t step down as president of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), a position now with greater powers over personnel after constitutional changes last year limited the National Assembly’s authority over the hiring and firing of government officials. Some pundits reckon he’ll create a “Minister Mentor” post for himself (à la LKY) after stepping down as prime minister. My guess is he wants the Senate presidency; it’s an untaxing job most of the year but means he would be acting head of state when the King is out of the country, which he often is. (Senate elections are next year, so that might indicate when he plans to resign as PM.) That post would cloak Hun Sen with immense powers to intervene if anything went haywire with Hun Manet’s prime ministership.
Hun Sen has been engaged in political life since his early twenties. He was a Khmer Rouge company commander by the age of 20, before becoming foreign minister in 1979 (and the world’s youngest foreign minister, aged just 26) and prime minister six years later. He only knows political life. So it’s not purely Machiavellian but instinctual that he cannot bring himself to fully retire from politics. If you want to be sympathetic, his lingering will provide stability. Those inside the party who don’t support Hun Manet and might want to tear down his premiership will be put off if Hun Sen is lurking behind the scenes, knowing he is aware of their frailties and skeletons.
Having never held a political office before, Hun Manet will need his hand held in the first years. After all, Hun Sen was inexperienced once upon a time, when he first became foreign minister in 1979, after helping to overthrow the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime with Vietnamese military support. Ouk Bounchhoeun, another Khmer Rouge defector, later recalled: “I didn’t think he was really that important…I didn’t think he would ever do anything very significant like he has.” Ngo Dien, Vietnam’s ambassador to the new People’s Republic of Kampuchea, as the country was known in the 1980s, was his mentor. As chief advisor to Cambodia’s Foreign Ministry, Dien would begin each day by giving Hun Sen a lesson on diplomacy and world politics, Elizabeth Becker recalls in “When The War Was Over.”
At the moment, Hun Sen is hedging. He probably knows what he would ideally want his future to look like but is noncommittal so as to leave space for contingency. That of course makes sense in the short term. But it could be a problem for Hun Manet, who will never be his own man whilst his father pulls the strings. The way Cambodian politics works, at least in recent decades as Hun Sen has accumulated greater authority, is that his writ runs large. The ministries are left to do their thing but at the first sight of internal disagreement or crisis, they turn to Hun Sen for advice. He then wades into debates on everything from high-school exam results to trade negotiations. He recently had to intervene to sort out the mess left by the Cambodia SEA Games Organizing Committee after it tried to charge exorbitant prices for broadcast rights to the upcoming Southeast Asia Games.
Speaking last week, Hun Sen implored government officials once again to carry out their duties without having to wait for his orders (although he wasn’t in the mood to admit that this top-down lethargy is a result of his dictatorial style of rule while the patronage politics of his ruling party tends to promote the incompetent way above their grade). “I remind all officials to follow the laws, but do not wait for orders to act,” he said. “For cases like this, I always remind them not to wait around until Hun Sen shouts at them and then rush to go do it. Please don’t do that. Just try doing your duty.”
For sure, the process of “generational succession” that will take place alongside Hun Manet’s coronation will bring youthful vigor and competence to the government, and ministers like Dith Tina (of agriculture for now, but assured a significant promotion when a new, post-election cabinet is formed around September) show how a ministry can be run efficiently. But at some point, there will be a crisis or schism that needs direction from above. Who will they approach? Prime Minister Hun Manet or his father? If there’s a genuine crisis and Hun Sen takes action (as CPP president) to oust a challenger, rather than Hun Manet going through the National Assembly, it’s difficult to see how that would empower the young prime minister.
The risk of any political succession is that you hand over a title but not the power. Whatever Hun Manet does, the prime ministership will never have the same degree of authority as it did under Hun Sen. The government will have to pivot, too, after he resigns the premiership. Either it becomes more consensus-based and competent, with ministries given more autonomy to make decisions and mistakes. Or the actual arbitrator or power becomes someone lurking behind the scenes.