Cambodian PM Hun Manet’s Rise to the Top of the CPP Leadership

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Cambodian PM Hun Manet’s Rise to the Top of the CPP Leadership

Since taking the reins from his father in August, Manet has also been promoted into the top ranks of the ruling party.

Cambodian PM Hun Manet’s Rise to the Top of the CPP Leadership

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Manet (right) attends celebrations marking the 45th anniversary of the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, January 7, 2024.

Credit: Facebook/Samdech Hun Sen of Cambodia

In its most recent national party congress last month, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) appointed Prime Minister Hun Manet as its newest vice president. This new political maneuver took place just a little over 100 days after Manet succeeded his father, Hun Sen, as premier in a dynastic succession arrangement that saw scions like Manet take over a new “princeling” cabinet.

At 46, Manet is the party’s youngest vice president, a role that he holds alongside old-guard stalwarts of his father’s generation, including Sar Kheng (72), Say Chhum (78), Tea Banh (78), and Men Sam An (70).

The premier was also, for the first time, seated in the front row alongside Hun Sen and Heng Samrin, the CPP’s ceremonious “honorary president” at the grand celebration of the 45th anniversary of the Khmer Rouge’s ousting in Phnom Penh on Sunday. All of the other elderly CPP vice presidents were seated in the second row.

Even more significantly, the ubiquitous official party billboards depicting Hun Sen and Heng Samrin will be replaced with billboards that depict three men. Manet, as the new vice president, will be added to the official posters alongside Hun Sen and Samrin, according to a new directive from the CPP central committee’s secretariat. No other incumbent CPP vice president has ever been accorded this status.

While it is sure that Hun Sen, who will likely replace Say Chhum as president of the Senate next month, may hold the CPP presidency for life, Manet’s elevation strongly indicates that he is being prepared to lead the party in the future, just as he was groomed over many years to succeed his father as prime minister.

Power-balancing arrangements appeared to be made at the convention. Children of all of the elderly vice presidents are admitted into the CPP’s Standing Committee, the party’s exclusive top decision-making body. They are Interior Minister Sar Sokha, Land Management Minister Say Sam Al, Defense Minister Tea Seiha, and Transport Minister Peng Ponea.

Other than these five scions, 18 other senior members were also added to the standing committee, growing the de facto Politburo to 56 members. Manet’s youngest brother, Civil Service Minister Hun Many, was also among the new members.

The CPP Central Committee saw a massive enlargement at the convention from 865 members to 1,312 members. In 2015, when Hun Sen succeeded the deceased former Senate President Chea Sim, the brother-in-law of Sar Kheng, as CPP president, the central committee had a little over 200 members. At 800-strong in number by the end of 2021, the enlarged central committee membership, most of whom remain unquestionably loyal to Hun Sen’s leadership and ideology, effectively endorsed Manet as his successor.

The further-enlarged entity is expected to bolster Manet’s standing in the party’s centrally governing organ that could eventually see him at the top of the CPP. Before taking over the party leadership in 2015, Hun Sen served as both Cambodian prime minister and CPP’s solo vice president to Chea Sim for over two decades.

But after Manet’s “princeling” cabinet completed its first 100 days at the end of November, signs of party factionalism along lines of big families, indeed, remain visibly active.

​ In November Sar Sokha’s new $60 million Ministry of Interior building, which dwarfs the scale of the Peace Palace (the prime minister’s office) and the 7 January Palace (the CPP’s headquarters) was inaugurated. Unlike his father Sar Kheng, who would be the acting prime minister in Hun Sen’s absence in the past, Sar Sokha does not enjoy the same arrangement. Gen. Neth Savoeun, former National Police General Commissioner and Hun Sen’s nephew-in-law is now designated acting prime minister in Hun Manet’s absence.

But the grandiose new Interior Ministry building can be read as a clear political message of the persistent power posture of the minister’s family in the party and on the nation’s power structure. Gen. Sar Thet, another member of the Sar family, succeeded Gen. Savoeun as the nation’s top cop while Sokha’s brother Lt. Gen. Sar Rotha was made police chief in Preah Sihanouk, the country’s strategically important coastal province.

Tea Banh, another CPP vice president, is still very much in the spotlight in the defense sector handing the position of defense minister to his son Tea Seiha. As minister between 1988 and 2023, Tea Banh, who is now a privy counselor alongside other retired CPP potentates, continues to attend international defense conferences and has toured military units in Royal Cambodian Armed Force uniform. The elderly generals who once served under him still serve under Seiha as secretaries of state and undersecretaries of state.

Since July, both Tea Banh and Tea Seiha have publicly visited the Ream Naval Base at least twice to inspect the controversial Chinese-assisted project overhauling the maritime facility, which some Western nations suspect will evolve into a Chinese naval outpost. While the Cambodian navy is nationally commanded by Tea Banh’s brother Adm. Tea Vinh, this highlights the Tea family’s strong commitment to the project.

Like it or not, CPP political heavyweights have bound their common political survival together such that any serious internal disunity is not – and will never be – an option they and the country can afford. In reality, the country’s monopolistic ruling party is less divided than outsiders often claim and, at the same time, less unified than it appears.

Despite more willingness to engage with democratic governments in the Western hemisphere, the Hun Manet government is still treading carefully in order not to antagonize China. Ironically, after refusing to attend an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) joint exercise on the edge of the South China Sea, the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces instead participated in a China-led multinational drill in Guangdong. Manet himself has visited China twice and made a trip to the United States only to attend the U.N. General Assembly in September. The new premier, however, is expected in Paris for an official visit this month at the invitation of French President Emmanuel Macron. He visited Vietnam in December and will visit Thailand next month.

On the domestic political front, there has been no sign of the government easing pressure on non-CPP politicians.

Opposition leader Kem Sokha is still serving his 27-year-long house arrest with no sign of compromise or amnesty on the part of the CPP government. He is due to attend his appeal hearing at the end of January – 10 months after his sentence. While the Candlelight Party remains in a blurry legal status amid the Interior Ministry’s continued refusal to notarize a copy of its 1998 registration paper, its newly-founded coalition with three other opposition parties has been met with two challenges. The CPP has formed its own coalition with 28 other minor parties. And, a group of the Candlelight Party’s hardline ranking members has left the party to form the Nation Power Party, a move that could once again split the opposition ahead of next month’s Senate election.

Due to Manet’s economic education, there has been a natural expectation for him to drive for even more targeted economic performance than his father. The cabinet’s first 100 days, however, reflected a grim economic reality. Weak demand in major export markets, inflation driven by higher food and energy prices, and growing woes in the real estate and construction sectors intertwined with household indebtedness continued to slow the country’s growth. The tourism industry is still struggling to recover from the downturn of the COVID-19 pandemic and even large-scale public investments, like the new Chinese-built airport in Siem Reap, may take time to deliver.

The government is also collecting smaller revenues from tax and non-tax sources. Both the World Bank and Asian Development Bank have downgraded their forecasts for Cambodian economic growth from 5.5 percent for 2024 to 5.4 percent and 5.3 percent, respectively. The stumbling Chinese economy is also often cited as a risk for Cambodian economic growth for the time being, given how much Cambodian public and private sectors relied on China for credit and investments.

On a positive note, the new government is expanding the social protection network to build toward universal healthcare coverage and launching an ambitious new program aimed at equipping more than one million young workers with new skills. Manet also secured a renewal of economic assistance from the U.S. during his New York debut, signaling an improvement in U.S.-Cambodia relations.

Different factions among the big families running the CPP will continue to strengthen their standing in this transitional period, in a bid to expand their base, leverage, and influence. The introduction of meaningful reforms will always be forced to accommodate the regime’s security and the CPP’s interests. Though the Hun Manet government appears willing to introduce meaningful reforms and deliver substantive policy results, and has recruited more technocrats with this in mind, it is still operating very much under the shadow of Hun Sen and other elderly CPP leaders.

Successful reforms and demonstrations that the benefits of economic growth are reaching all socio-economic levels of the population would help improve Manet’s standing and credibility as the new leader.

Ideally, to appeal to a younger generation of Cambodians, the new prime minister should not be glorified. Concerningly, however, Manet has not yet held any press conferences or engaged in any real way with the media. With his age, capabilities, and qualification, Manet is well-positioned to be more down-to-earth, speaking directly with the Cambodian people. He should avail himself of the opportunity to engage in meaningful and unchoreographed dialogues with ordinary citizens who want their voices heard by their young leader.

In reality, the future success of Manet’s “princeling” cabinet rests on how it can navigate CPP factionalism, secure elite unity, address downside economic risks in the near and medium terms, and satisfy the population’s growing demands for results.