Hun Sen stepping down as Cambodian PM

Hun Sen stepping down as Cambodian PM

Long-serving strongman handing power to son after one-sided election win

Prime Minister Hun Sen speaks during the opening of a water treatment plant in Phnom Penh on June 19. (Photo: AFP)
Prime Minister Hun Sen speaks during the opening of a water treatment plant in Phnom Penh on June 19. (Photo: AFP)

PHNOM PENH: Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, one of the world’s longest-serving leaders, said Wednesday he will resign and hand power to his eldest son after almost four decades of hardline rule.

The former Khmer Rouge cadre has run the kingdom since 1985, eliminating all opposition to his power, with opposition parties banned, challengers forced to flee and freedom of expression stifled.

His Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won a landslide victory in an election on Sunday with no meaningful opposition, taking 82% of the vote, paving the way for a dynastic succession to his eldest son that some critics have compared to North Korea.

“I would like to ask for understanding from the people as I announce that I will not continue as prime minister,” the 70-year-old said in a special broadcast on state television.

Election authorities disqualified the only serious challenger, the Candlelight Party, on a technicality in advance of the election, and the CPP is expected to win all but five of the 125 lower house seats.

The government hailed the 84.6% turnout as evidence of the country’s “democratic maturity” but Western powers including the United States and European Union condemned the poll as neither free nor fair.

Hun Manet, 45, competed in the elections as a list candidate for the first time after rising through the armed forces ranks to become a four-star general. He was among the children of the ruling elite serving in positions of power as the government transitions from the old guard to the new generation for the first time since a rebellion against the Khmer Rouge in 1979. 

Hun Manet, son of Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen is seen at a polling station on the day of Cambodia's general election, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on July 23, 2023. (Photo: Reuters)

Chinese influence

Hun Sen has signalled the handover to his son for the last year and a half, and the 45-year-old played a leading role in campaigning for Sunday’s vote.

Phay Siphan, the main government spokesman, told Bloomberg News earlier there was no concrete time for the succession and any new government would need the constitutional approval of the King first before it can take shape.

“I assume that the transition is going to be smooth,” he said.

In any case, the outgoing leader has made it clear that he still intends to wield influence, even after he steps down, scotching the notion that the country could change directio

Under Hun Sen, Cambodia has tacked close to Beijing, benefiting from huge Chinese investment and infrastructure projects, including the redevelopment of a naval base that has alarmed Washington.

China welcomed Sunday’s election, with President Xi Jinping sending Hun Sen a personal message of congratulation, saying Cambodia had “achieved political stability.”

But the flood of Chinese money has brought problems, including a rash of casinos and online scam operations staffed by trafficked workers in appalling conditions.

Critics say his rule has also been marked by environmental destruction and entrenched graft.

Cambodia ranks 150th out of 180 in Transparency International’s corruption perception index. In Asia, only Myanmar and North Korea rank lower.

Rights groups accuse Hun Sen of using the legal system to crush any opposition to his rule — including activists and troublesome union leaders as well as politicians.

Scores of opposition politicians have been convicted and jailed during his time in power and the law was changed ahead of Sunday’s election to make it illegal to call for voters to spoil ballots.

Five days before polling day, authorities banned exiled opposition figurehead Sam Rainsy from running for office for 25 years for urging people to void their ballot papers.

Opposition leader Kem Sokha was convicted of treason and sentenced to 27 years in prison in March over an alleged plot to topple Hun Sen’s government. He is currently serving his sentence under house arrest.

The United States has imposed visa restrictions on Cambodian individuals “who undermined democracy and implemented a pause of certain foreign assistance programmes”.

“Cambodian authorities engaged in a pattern of threats and harassment against the political opposition, media, and civil society that undermined the spirit of the country’s constitution and Cambodia’s international obligations,” US State Department Matthew Miller said over the weekend.

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