Can Hun Manet deliver in the top job?

Can Hun Manet deliver in the top job?

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen, left, poses with his son Hun Manet during a ceremony at a military base in Phnom Penh in 2009. Hun Sen has backed his eldest son as his political heir. AFP
Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen, left, poses with his son Hun Manet during a ceremony at a military base in Phnom Penh in 2009. Hun Sen has backed his eldest son as his political heir. AFP

It has taken Prime Minister Hun Sen almost a decade to announce his political successor, which he did on Dec 2. At first, he has in mind at least four choices -- the first pair comprising his two sons, Hun Manet and Hun Many and the second pair of senior colleagues, Sar Kheng and Say Chumm of Cambodia People's Party. Then, he decided to focus on the first pair.

True to his character, at the opening ceremony for National Road 11 connecting Prey Veng to Tbong Khumum provinces on Dec 6, Hun Sen was very candid about his future heir. He even challenged his senior comrades to nominate their children to contest the party leadership. As a father, Hun Sen has been observing the two siblings at close range to decide who can stand in for him after he retires from politics. Hun Sen, now 69, used to say that he would stay on in his position until he was 90 years old. But with this decision, he confirmed that he will quit politics for good sooner or later. With his stamina and health condition, he can stay on til 2028 if he so desires. The question is when he will step down. This will depend on two key factors -- Hun Manet's preparedness and readiness and the overall condition of internal politics.

Deep down, before the announcement he was buying time for the two sons to gain more maturity and experience as well as learn the craft of political survival in the age of social media and global scrutiny. Within the region, Hun Sen must be ranked as one of the most versatile and mercurial leaders who has survived the odds and changing times. He has surprised the international community with his ability and flexibility in engaging regional and major powers. Most notably, he has boosted his country's strategic value.

In choosing Hun Manet over Hun Many, the father knows that the elder son has characteristics fit to be Cambodia's political leader in the future. At the age of 44, Hun Manet is considered young, especially within the hierarchy of the Cambodia People's Party, which has been in power since 1991. His many years of Western education, especially in the US, in both military and civilian affairs have given him a unique opportunity and the knowledge to combine these two disciplines -- a huge departure from his father's experience. He graduated from West Point Military Academy and earned his MA and PhD from ranking universities. The pandemic also allowed him to display his human side, serving as a volunteer along his wife with regard to Covid-19 vaccines and treating victims.

Hun Sen hopes that his chosen successor will be able to lead this once war-torn country into a developing country with a middle-income range by 2030. Of course, Hun Manet will have to contest and win a general election. Cambodia will hold a general election in mid-2023. Whether he enters politics two years from now will depend on the state of domestic politics.

At the moment, Hun Sen is under pressure both from within the country and from the international community to relax his grip on the political scene, allowing opposition parties to conduct politics as well as have media freedom to follow the country's development and promote human rights. The pandemic helped to distract the public from the day-to-day political doldrums inside the country and allowed Hun Sen to tackle the spread of the coronavirus with vaccinations quickly. Today, Cambodia is the first Asean member to open up the country without quarantine. Tourists are pouring into the country.

With Covid-19 infection rates slowing, more public attention will turn to politics. One reason Hun Sen decided to opt for Hun Manet rather than Hun Many was the latter's tarnished image as a politician and family man. Hun Many, who was tipped earlier as his father successor, has been left out in the cold since allegations of sexual assaults against women surfaced in 2018.

Hun Sen has to ensure his political legacy will be protected at whatever cost after he leaves politics. As the world's longest-serving prime minister, many have axes to grind against him if he no longer holds power. Only having a trusted lieutenant in power, especially a family member, would provide such a guarantee.

In the coming months and years, Hun Manet will have to fend off internal challenges from the CPP's elders, in particular Interior Minister Sar Kheng and President of the Senate, Say Chumm. Several senior members, especially those in the 36-member politburo, are also waiting for their opportunity to move up to the top. He will also be pitched against opposition parties. At the moment, Kem Sokha, a former leader of now defunct Cambodian National Rescue Party who is still in jail for treason, remains his main rival. Sam Rainsy, who lives in exiles in France, has not been allowed to return home and play politics.

A more important contributing factor for Hun Manet's political future will be the young generation, in particular those under 35 years old. They comprise over 65% of the 14.8 million population. Cambodian youth are very sophisticated and tech savy these days. They are dynamic in wanting to push the country forward to rival other small states, which have found their place in the global community. They want a government that is democratic, transparent and which provides good governance. That explains why Hun Manet has been appointed chief of the CPP's youth wing so that he is be exposed to and understands the hearts and minds of young Cambodians, who have never been through the Khmer Rouge terror or civil war. That is a tall order.

Hun Manet will protect his father without doubt but he is unlikely to copy his father's demeanour. Cambodia today is a vibrant small tiger within Southeast Asia. Its geo-strategic position as the belly of Southeast Asia's coastline has attracted major powers' attention well as competition for influence. It remains to be seen whether the announcement of Hun Manet as Hun Sen's successor will stir up any internal power struggles. Cambodia needs continuity and stability to move up the ladder of the developing world. If that is the case, it would be considered a rare peaceful transition of power for the country.

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs.

Kavi Chongkittavorn

A veteran journalist on regional affairs

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs

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