In Hun Manet’s Cambodia, It Is the Perception of Change That Matters

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In Hun Manet’s Cambodia, It Is the Perception of Change That Matters

The country’s new prime minister is bound to the system created by his father. But for some foreign governments, it is enough that there is a new face at the top.

In Hun Manet’s Cambodia, It Is the Perception of Change That Matters
Credit: Facebook/Samdech Thipadei Hun Manet, Prime Minister of Cambodia

The vice of world politics is to judge a leader’s actions by their reputation, rather than the other way around. Perhaps because Hun Manet had never held a political or elected office before becoming Cambodia’s prime minister in August, and was so veiled in his father’s shadow as to be almost unperceivable, one could only judge him on his reputation. But he has now been in charge for two months and we’re already seeing much continuity: opposition leaders jailed, independent newspapers threatened with closure, activists beaten on the streets of Phnom Penh by hired thugs, etc.

Naturally, this has led to the opinion that the vast generational succession conducted by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) this summer, which saw almost the entire old guard resign and hand over power to a younger generation, mostly their children, was entirely a cosmetic change. The same system remains, only now with ministers in their forties rather than their seventies. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch has argued: “Hun Manet is the dictatorial version of ‘old wine in a new bottle’ and no one should be fooled that his government will be any better than what we saw under his father’s oppressive rule. Cambodian officials and their allies in the international community who are trying to spin that Hun Manet is a kinder, gentler version of his father simply don’t have any facts on their side.”

Joshua Kurlantzick, of the Council of Foreign Relations, wrote earlier this month that Hun Manet “offered few signs that he would make any major changes in Cambodia. And he still seems, at times, directly under the control of his father.” Indeed, Hun Sen, who ruled the country between 1985 and August of this year, remains president of the ruling party, will next year become acting head of state as Senate President, and still dictates government policy from behind the scenes.

But this somewhat misses the point. Hun Manet is a confected politician, a post-modern leader, someone who takes on the form that the person inspecting him wants. Because he was groomed by his father as a successor for decades, it meant having no discernible quirks or eccentricities, nor any individual goals or motivations. Better to think of him as a prince raised to be a king, enmeshed so deeply into the system he will inherit that he had to shed himself of any individuality lest it ruff up against the institution. Indeed, Hun Manet is something to everyone because he’s so transparent. Whereas his father was always a protean leader – devoid of an ideology or a conviction that couldn’t be quickly abandoned when the time suited, constantly adapting as the situation changed – Hun Manet is a blank slate, a hologram of his father but with the rough edges smoothed out. It’s impossible to say that Hun Manet is a reformer because that would be to ascribe to him an actual worldview, an opinion or purpose that is his own.

His entire administration is built on argumentum ad antiquitatem: that things are right because they have always been done that way. Indeed, its key success will stem from the fact that Hun Sen resigned, and the political elite didn’t descend into anarchy. To the communists in Beijing, which he has visited twice in as many months, Hun Manet is the status quo, the leader who will keep up the “ironclad friendship” and accept whatever Chinese cash is offered. To Western leaders, he is the conduit of change because he isn’t Hun Sen, and not being Hun Sen means change – a similar logic that led U.S. diplomats into thinking that Sar Kheng, the former interior minister, could offer a reformist alternative. Indeed, some Americans believe that Manet will be more Western-focused because he was educated at West Point, the elite U.S. military academy, and isn’t of the generation that still despises Washington for its illegal bombing of Cambodia. But that assumes Hun Manet has his own mind or can go against the institution he’s inherited.

Partly, the optimistic way Western democracies have responded to Hun Manet’s succession is a result of exaggerating the role of the individual above the system. When Cambodia is described as a “personalist dictatorship,” in which Hun Sen was presented as having complete control, it’s only natural to assume that change at the top means change entirely. It’s also partly because in world politics the driving consideration is not how things are but in which direction they are moving. In order to function, the State Department in Washington, for instance, must act on the premise that it either can or cannot influence a situation in another country. As such, there’s an inbuilt logic towards motion: things must be getting better or worse. So what matters, at least in the way foreign governments see it, is whether the political situation in Cambodia could improve.

Talk to European diplomats and they say they’re taking a “wait-and-see approach.” The same is true of those in Washington, Canberra, and Tokyo, although some of those capitals have tilted more towards seeing change before waiting for the evidence. This then leads us to two questions. First, how long are they going to wait? Second, what does change look like? No one reckons that Hun Manet will create a Scandinavian democracy on the Mekong. Yet, is reform supposed to return Cambodia to the situation pre-2017, when the CPP was dominant but at least a real opposition party was allowed to exist? Is it supposed to resemble the political reality in Malaysia or Indonesia, where democracy exists but human rights are still violated? Or a system like in Singapore, where the ruling party will always maintain power but at least it has introduced some liberal policies and is so economically important that everyone forgets it’s an autocracy?

There is a notion of there being a single “Hun Sen’s Cambodia” that spanned between 1985 and 2023. But Hun Sen’s Cambodia wasn’t the same in 1985 as it was in 1991 or 1993 or 1998 or 2006 or 2013 or 2017 and, indeed, in 2023. It went from being a Vietnamese-baked socialist state to ostensibly a Western-leaning multiparty democracy, back (in 1997) to an autocratic regime but then one with a crevice of political pluralism about it in the 2000s, to a state where the CPP might actually lose power in 2013, and then to outright one-party despotism after 2017.

It’s not so much that Hun Manet, as Kurlantzick put it, is “directly under the control of his father.” More accurately, he’s fettered by an institution and system that his father created. He has much in common with King Norodom Sihamoni in that regard. Hun Sen would have never allowed someone strong-willed and independent-minded to succeed him, since that successor might have gone against the former sovereign and, more importantly, disrupted the carefully balanced but potentially combustible political system. Indeed, it took years of backroom deals and intimidation for Hun Sen to get the CPP elite to support his son as prime minister, and that only came after a promise that there would be an entire generational succession.

But that need not lead you to assume that there’s no possibility of change. Hun Sen’s Cambodia was constantly in flux; so too will Hun Manet’s Cambodia. However, change will come when economic or political circumstances change, not from the new premier’s apparent will to be seen as a reformer.