Hun Sen is Cambodia's de facto FM
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Hun Sen is Cambodia's de facto FM

Hun Sen, the former prime minister turned Senate president, visits his close friend — former Thai PM and paroled convict Thaksin Shinawatra — at Thaksin's residence in Bangkok on Feb 21. (Photo: Samdech Hun Sen of Cambodia Facebook Page)
Hun Sen, the former prime minister turned Senate president, visits his close friend — former Thai PM and paroled convict Thaksin Shinawatra — at Thaksin's residence in Bangkok on Feb 21. (Photo: Samdech Hun Sen of Cambodia Facebook Page)

Who exactly is in charge of foreign affairs in Cambodia? Judging by the last few months, Hun Sen, the former prime minister turned Senate president, appears to be pulling the strings. At least he's now the main mouthpiece.

He was the one who, for instance, announced that Cambodia wouldn't be attending the Ukraine-led summit in Switzerland despite his past overtures to Kyiv. In doing so, he also claimed to have met with the "CIA director" -- possibly referring to Bill Burns -- on June 2. Two days later, Hun Sen did meet with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin when he visited Phnom Penh. Foreign Minister Sok Chenda Sophea didn't. Hun Sen has led the charge to defend Cambodia's positions on various international issues, such as the controversy over the planned Funan Techo Canal. Chenda Sophea hasn't.

Indeed, Chenda Sophea has been very lowkey since his appointment last August. He visited China in May and attended the third EU Indo-Pacific Ministerial Forum and the 24th Asean-EU Ministerial Meeting in Brussels in February. But his time abroad has been limited. Instead, he has focused almost entirely on economic issues.

Chenda Sophea headed the Council for the Development of Cambodia, the state investment body, from 1997 until last year. A seasoned technocrat and mostly apolitical -- he was parachuted into the National Assembly last year -- he was brought in to clean up the ministry that was seen as too bogged down by officials more interested in geopolitical posturing than furthering Cambodia's economic interests. The government under Prime Minister Hun Manet, Hun Sen's son who inherited the premiership last August, wants the foreign ministry to focus almost entirely on trade and investment.

With Chenda Sophea and the foreign ministry focusing on that, Hun Sen has stepped in to fill the void on other issues since becoming Senate president in April. This was probably always the intention after he transferred power to his son. As the world's longest-serving head of government until last year, Hun Sen sees himself as a key Asian statesman whom others should come to for advice, although he hasn't found a large audience. Nonetheless, he's still trying to build himself a legacy outside of Cambodia.

Hun Manet was given a few months in the limelight after his succession to tour the world, but since the beginning of the year, he has focused mainly on domestic issues. Defence Minister Tea Seiha, who succeeded his long-serving father in the post last year, is inexperienced and everyone knows that his father -- former Defence Minister Tea Banh, who held the post since the early 1990s until he handed it over last year, still calls the shots. Plus, the Huns don't entirely trust the Teas, a family that has its own vast patronage networks and has also been seen as a threat to the Hun clan's supremacy.

Hun Sen's influence remains pervasive. His daily social media musings are interpreted as government policy. He, not the foreign ministry, has made key announcements on international policy. However, he is not formally part of the government. He is president of the ruling party, but that position should only mean he talks about party-to-party matters. He is only supposed to be acting head of state, a position that affords some foreign policy authority when King Norodom Sihamoni is absent.

The constitution's rules on the Senate president's role are vague, but Hun Sen is clearly going above and beyond his predecessor. In some instances, he is conducting his own shadow foreign policy. All interactions with Ukraine go through him. Since becoming Senate president, he's restarted his peace mission to Myanmar.

In early 2022, when he was prime minister and Cambodia took over the annually rotating Asean chairmanship, Hun Sen embarrassed himself with lone-ranger diplomacy in Myanmar, becoming the first foreign leader to visit Nay Pyi Taw since the coup of 2021. Not only did Hun Sen barely consult his Asean colleagues about his visit, which they publicly criticised, but he also touted promises from junta chief Min Aung Hlaing that were never kept.

In May, Hun Sen spoke by video to Min Aung Hlaing. He is planning another visit to Nay Pyi Taw and, for some reason, tried to get a telephone call with Aung San Suu Kyi, the detained civilian leader ousted by the military in 2021. As Reuters put it: "It was not immediately clear why he had sought access to Suu Kyi."

Hun Sen's efforts in Myanmar are likely to fail, but him acting semi-independently on some foreign policy matters makes sense. The actual Cambodian government doesn't want to touch issues like the Myanmar Civil War or the war in Ukraine. Hun Manet, a West Point graduate, is still touting his government's apparent reformist credentials to win back friends in the West, so wants to avoid saying too much about the US-China rivalry.

The de facto foreign minister role means Hun Sen can do his own thing, and his son's government can claim that if things go bad, Hun Sen isn't representing official policy, though everyone knows that is a fiction. On Myanmar, for instance, Phnom Penh can claim Hun Sen's overtures are conducted in his personal capacity, and the Cambodian government isn't lending legitimacy to any of Myanmar's political groups, thus sparing Cambodia pushback from its Asean partners.

But there is a danger in all of this. In February, he visited his "god brother" Thaksin Shinawatra, the former Thai prime minister who got an early release from prison that month. After Thaksin was overthrown by the military in 2006, Hun Sen appointed him as a special adviser, frustrating Bangkok's generals.

Meeting his old friend in February, Hun Sen claimed they "didn't talk about politics". But he invited Thaksin's daughter Paetongtarn Shinawatra, leader of the Pheu Thai Party, the main coalition party, to visit Phnom Penh -- ostensibly a party-to-party visit.

But some in Bangkok weren't too happy with these overtures, especially as Thaksin is pushing so hard to influence government policy that conservative members of the coalition are trying to have him sent back to prison for lèse-majesté.

David Hutt is a research fellow at the Central European Institute of Asian Studies (CEIAS) and the Southeast Asia Columnist at 'The Diplomat'. He writes the 'Watching Europe In Southeast Asia' newsletter.

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