Cambodia’s Hun Sen has been his country’s autocratic prime minister for nearly four decades, during which the opposition has been stifled and the country has grown increasingly close to China.
With his Cambodian People’s Party virtually guaranteed another landslide victory in this Sunday’s election, it’s hard to imagine dramatic change on the horizon. But the 70-year-old former communist Khmer Rouge fighter and Asia’s longest-serving leader says he is ready to hand the premiership to his oldest son, Hun Manet, a four-star general who heads the country’s army.
A graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Hun Manet, 45, also has a master’s degree from NYU and a doctorate in economics from Britain’s Bristol University. His speeches tend to broadly praise his father’s government but are short on specifics about issues, so it’s hard to know if his background may portend political change.
But it will take work for the West to regain influence in the Southeast Asian country of 16.5 million, given China’s strategic and economic importance, said John Bradford, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
“A Cambodia led by Hun Manet might very well be a stronger U.S. ally, but the U.S.-Cambodia relationship can only thrive if it is built on strong fundamentals of common benefit and mutual respect,” Bradford said. “U.S. diplomats should focus on these things.”
At the top of a Western wish list would be an end to human rights abuses and the sidelining of political opposition, which Hun Sen has stepped up ahead of the election to the point that Human Rights Watch said it now “bears little resemblance to an actual democratic process.”
Internationally, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which Cambodia chaired last year, has criticized it for undermining its unity in disputes with China over South China Sea territorial disputes, and the U.S. has expressed concerns over China’s involvement in construction at Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base which could give Beijing a strategically important military outpost on the Gulf of Thailand.
Ground was broken last year on the Ream project, and satellite imagery of the ongoing construction from Planet Labs PBC taken about a month ago and analyzed by The Associated Press shows a jetty now large enough to accommodate a destroyer, providing that the water is deep enough.
It is not clear when – or even if – Hun Sen will hand off to his son during the next five-year government term, though most seem to think it will happen early enough for Hun Manet to establish himself in the job before the next election. Both men refused requests to be interviewed by The Associated Press.
Even when Hun Manet does take over, Bradford said it might not mean any change at all, noting that educational and personal background do not necessarily translate into leadership style or political stance.
“We have a dictator in North Korea who went to school in Switzerland,” he said. “His choices don’t exactly reflect Swiss values.”
Hun Manet has given few clues himself, posting frequently on Facebook and Telegram like his father but revealing little of his political leanings.
And few think Hun Sen will fade into the woodwork, instead choosing now as a good time to turn over power so that he can still maintain a large degree of control from the sidelines, said Gordon Conochie, a research fellow at Australia’s La Trobe University and author of “A Tiger Rules the Mountain: Cambodia’s Pursuit of Democracy,” which was published this month.
“It means that while his son is establishing his own authority as prime minister, he’s still got a relatively young, healthy – physically and mentally – father behind him,” Conochie said. “The reality is that as long as Hun Sen is there, nobody’s going to move against them. And Hun Sen will be the man in charge, even if his son is the prime minister.”
Hun Manet is also only one of five Hun Sen relatives running on the CPP ticket in this election, including Hun Manet’s brother, Hun Many.
Hun Sen joined Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge at age 18 as it fought to seize power, losing his left eye in the final battle for Phnom Penh in 1975.
When a series of purges within the genocidal communist regime, blamed for the deaths of some 1.7 million Cambodians, put his own life at risk, he fled to neighboring Vietnam, returning to help oust his former comrades in 1979 alongside an invading Vietnamese army.
By his late twenties he was installed as foreign minister by occupying Vietnamese forces, and in 1985 became prime minister, the world’s youngest at the time.
Over the decades he tightened his grip on power while ushering in a free-market economy and helping bring an end to three decades of civil war.
“The defining characteristic of Hun Sen’s career has been his ideological and political flexibility,” said Hun Sen biographer Sebastian Strangio. “This is a leader who ruled at the head of a communist government in the 1980s, made a very rapid transition to the democratic system that the U.N. brought in in the early 1990s, and since then has shown an uncanny ability to duck and weave and adjust on the fly in order to consolidate his hold on power.”
With average annual economic growth of 7.7 percent between 1998 and 2019, Cambodia was elevated from a low-income country to a lower middle-income status in 2015, and expects to attain middle-income status by 2030, according to the World Bank.
But at the same time, the gap between the rich and poor has greatly widened, deforestation has spread at an alarming rate, and there has been widespread land grabbing by Hun Sen’s Cambodian allies and foreign investors.
As discontent strengthened opposition, the country’s compliant courts dissolved the main opposition party ahead of the 2018 elections, ensuring victory for Hun Sen’s party, and the country’s National Election Committee barred the only credible challenge to him in this Sunday’s election on a technicality.
“Draconian laws, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, and judicial harassment, including politically motivated mass trials against over 100 opposition members and dozens of human rights defenders, perpetuate autocratic rule and silence dissent,” Human Rights Watch wrote of Hun Sen’s methods.
While an element of “diehard opposition” remains, in the five years since the last election more people have become part of a “silent majority” who might want to see more options but are comfortable enough in their jobs and lives that they’re not motivated to demand change, said Ou Virak, president of Phnom Penh’s Future Forum think tank.
“They don’t really care enough to actually be pushing for anything, and probably just accept that this is the way it is,” he said.
With Hun Manet due to take over as prime minister, and an expected wholesale replacement of top ministers, the election will bring a “generational change” to Cambodia’s leadership, Ou Virak said.
That could create a “honeymoon period” for international diplomacy with younger, Western-educated officials better equipped to hold “global conversations on issues and topics.”
But people will be disappointed if they expect a sharp pivot away from China, he said.
“China is still Cambodia’s main backer, Cambodia’s main superpower partner,” he said. “So, I think any shift to the West will be limited because you can’t alienate your main supporter.”