Cambodian leader’s son, a West Point grad, set to take reins of power — but will he bring change?

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Hun Sen has been Cambodia’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 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point who heads the country’s army.

Tens of thousands of supporters packed a central square in the capital before daybreak on Friday to hear the 45-year-old’s 7 a.m. kick-off to the CPP’s final day of campaigning before the vote.

With a warm smile and soft tone, a stark contrast to his father’s stern look and military-like cadence, Hun Manet said the CPP had brought peace, stability and progress to the Cambodian people.

“Voting for the Cambodian People’s Party is voting for yourselves,” he told the cheering crowd, promising to return Cambodia’s national pride to a “greater level than the glorious Angkor era” of the Khmer Empire, centuries ago.

With the only credible challenge to the CPP barred from participating in the elections on a technicality, Cambodians are being offered little choice but to vote for the ruling party again. The arrests over the past week of several leading opposition figures have served to help stifle visible support for anyone but the CPP on the streets of Phnom Penh.

“Authorities in Cambodia have spent the past five years picking apart what’s left of the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association,” Amnesty International’s Montse Ferrer said Friday. “Many people feel that they are being forced to participate in this election despite their party of choice not being on the ballot.”

There was, however, a palpable sense of excitement as Hun Manet walked through the crowd of some 60,000 shaking hands and taking selfies, before taking a position next to his wife in the back of a pickup truck for a long parade through the city.

Sixteen-year-old Sin Dina, one of many young people who turned out, jumped up and down and waved the Cambodian flag as Hun Manet drove slowly by, said it was the first time she had the opportunity to see him in person.

“He looks like a gentleman, down to earth, approachable, and he’s well-educated” she said, adding she only regretted she was too young to vote. “He’s an appropriate successor to his father.”

Many in the crowd spoke of Hun Manet’s education — his bachelor’s at West Point being followed by a master’s at New York University and a doctorate in economics from Britain’s Bristol University.

His background has given rise to hope from some in the West that he might bring political change, but it will still take work 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 Washington’s concerns is 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 naval destroyer, if the water is deep enough.

Regionally, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which Cambodia chaired last year, has criticized Phnom Penh for undermining its unity in disputes with China over South China Sea territorial claims.

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 Sen joined the 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 20s 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.

Ly Chanthy, who braved a steady downpour to watch Hun Manet’s parade through the city on Friday, said she remembered the Khmer Rouge days and would be forever grateful to Hun Sen, and was happy to back his son.

“I will vote for the Cambodian People’s Party until I die,” said the 58-year-old, a Cambodian flag on a makeshift pole over her shoulder.

“I will never forget that he rescued our lives from the Pol Pot regime.”

Under Hun Sen, Cambodia has seen an average annual economic growth of 7.7% between 1998 and 2019, It was elevated from a low-income country to 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 2018 elections, and over the past five years the government has strongarmed any dissent while effectively pushing a message of peace and prosperity.

An element of “diehard opposition” remains, but even though a “silent majority” may want more options, most 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.

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, which could begin a “honeymoon period” for international diplomacy, he said.

But people will be disappointed if they expect a sharp pivot away from China, he added.

“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.”


Associated Press journalists Sopheng Cheang in Phnom Penh, and Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this story.

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