What Can We Expect From the New Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Manet?

Cambodia will have a new prime minister on August 22 in the person of Hun Manet, who will replace his father Hun Sen. This change has been orchestrated by Hun Sen himself after his 38-year rule, matching by only two African dictators.

Hun Manet’s assumption of office holds mostly symbolic value, as no significant changes in the political landscape of Cambodia are anticipated. In reality, Hun Sen will continue to pull the strings as the head of the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), a party of communist origin that has been in power since 1979. Little will truly change as long as the current system established by Hun Sen himself remains intact. Hun Manet will effectively be a captive of this system, which he must preserve under the watchful eye of his father.

Neo-Khmer Rouge Regime

Hun Sen’s regime can be characterized as a neo-Khmer Rouge regime, as it is based on violence and impunity, much like under Pol Pot. Hun Sen was a loyal military leader under Pol Pot from 1975 to 1977. Under Hun Sen, at every level of the state, many new Cambodian leaders after Pol Pot were recruited from former Khmer Rouge cadres, allowing for the maintenance of a police state to this day.

What Hun Sen primarily expects from his son, Hun Manet, is the assurance of continued impunity. It’s widely known that in Phnom Penh, the courts are under political control, and none of the numerous political crimes – resembling acts of state terrorism – which have been committed under Hun Sen have ever been subject to a serious investigation. Cambodia is a land of impunity where the worst murderers roam freely within the corridors of state.

A glimmer of hope for an end to this impunity recently emerged from Paris. On 30 December, 2021, a French investigating judge’s ordinance hinted that Hun Sen could be prosecuted in France once he loses his judicial immunity tied to his role as head of government. This would be in relation to the grenade attack in Phnom Penh on 30 March, 1997. As a French citizen, I had filed a complaint against Hun Sen in the Paris court for an assassination attempt against me that resulted in at least 16 deaths among my supporters on that day.

Hun Sen’s second objective in passing the power from father to son is the ability to continue to control Cambodia both economically and in patrimonial terms.

The Cambodian economy is largely controlled by the Hun Sen family and its allies, forming a political and financial elite which holds immense wealth amidst widespread poverty. Hun Sen perpetuated the Khmer Rouge mentality and culture of considering the nation’s wealth and state property as spoils of war to be used at the victors’ discretion.

In this patrimonial power perspective, Hun Sen publicly declared that he saw himself in the future as “not only the father but also the grandfather of prime ministers.” He must have had the North Korean lineage of Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un in mind.

Clan Succession

The replacement of Hun Sen by his son Hun Manet becomes almost comical when such succession extends not only to the Hun family but also to all families forming the ruling clan. In fact, practically all ministers in the current government led by Hun Sen will be replaced by their respective children in the upcoming government led by Hun Manet. This is a world-first that even North Korea had not dared to imagine.

What makes the creation of the Hun dynasty in Cambodia even more farcical is the “democratic” foundation that Hun Sen wanted to ensure for it. A two-penny farce that would be amusing if a country’s fate was not at stake.

Hun Sen wanted to take no risks over his son’s enthronement. On 23 July, he organized a sham election where his victory was 100% guaranteed. Just a few weeks before the voting day, he had arbitrarily removed the only opposition party that could have challenged him, the Candlelight Party (CP), which I founded 25 years ago.

This highly undemocratic and discriminatory measure provoked an outcry from the international community, which Hun Sen, in his determination to secure his son Hun Manet’s appointment as prime minister, utterly disregarded. But he won’t be able to ignore the backlash for long. Lack of legitimacy is the automatic result of elections without risk.

Lack of Legitimacy

This lack of legitimacy will remain a stain that forever marks the new government under Hun Manet.

Hun Manet himself has a lack of achievement for which Hun Sen cannot compensate. His personality seems rather dull compared to his father’s; he lacks charisma, eloquence and authority. Over the past twenty years spent alongside his father leading the country, particularly the military, he has never done or said anything that would suggest he possesses an independent personality. He has only continually praised his father without any critical thinking.

Despite being 45 years old, he has no known notable achievements or accomplishments, even though he had all the means to accomplish them. Just recently, when the time came to make him prime minister, slightly altering the initial timeline (see “What Lies Behind the Sudden Resignation of Prime Minister Hun Sen?” in The Geopolitics on August 7, 2023), “achievements” were suddenly attributed to him, such as his “heroic behavior” during border incidents with Thailand and Laos 10 or 15 years ago and his “exemplary leadership” in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic.

These “achievements” largely rely on imagination, as some border incidents with neighboring countries were periodically manufactured by Hun Sen to boost his electoral campaigns, and the successes in fighting Covid-19 in Cambodia can raise skepticism (see “Cambodia is being turned into a political advert for Chinese vaccines” in The Geopolitics on November 16, 2021). Laos, which made little fuss about the pandemic, has fared better than Cambodia with fewer Covid-19 deaths per million inhabitants.

Even the highly-touted admission of Hun Manet to the US Military Academy at West Point conceals a secret inadvertently revealed by Hun Sen. In 2021, the father published a lengthy letter from his son in which the latter clarified that there were two paths to admission at West Point – one for Americans and the other for foreigners – and that he (Hun Manet) was admitted through the second path only thanks to political connections provided by the Phnom Penh government.

Looking ahead, with Hun Manet as prime minister and Hun Sen continuing to set the government’s major political directions, no liberalization of the current regime should be expected. This regime is fundamentally built on repression and violence, which have ensnared those exercising power. In fact, violence confines those who employ it to stay in power more so than those who suffer it. Any liberalization by dictators who rely on violence can only lead to their downfall. The enduring North Korean model is evidence of this.

[Photo by Mil.ru, via Wikimedia Commons]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

Strategic Ambiguity of Macron’s Call for Troops in Ukraine: What Is Behind?

Macron’s call for the NATO troops in Ukraine shook the NATO countries as an earthquake. French President Emmanuel Macron said on Feb. 27 that...

How the Anti-West Axis Leverages Western Guilt

The United States’ wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have widely cast the image of America as the great imperialist evil of the modern era....

Iran’s Ascendant Arsenal and King David’s Nuclear Slingshot

In the unfolding tapestry of Middle Eastern geopolitics, the recent escalation between Iran and Israel represents not just a bilateral confrontation but a seismic...