BANGKOK — Prime Minister Hun Sen, the onetime guerrilla fighter who has dominated the political scene in Cambodia since taking office in the mid-1980s, has made little secret of his foreign policy leanings, clashing with the U.S. over the criticisms of its human rights while deepening economic and strategic ties with China.
Now, as the 69-year-old Hun Sen looks to preserve and extend his policy legacy, he is grooming an unusual candidate to succeed him: a West Point graduate with multiple degrees from top American and British universities who spent many years in the West.
Working in the candidate’s favor, however, is that he is Hun Sen’s son.
Hun Manet, 44, commander of the Royal Cambodian Army since 2018, took a big step toward keeping the prime minister’s job in the family in December after his father helped engineer his unanimous election by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party Central Committee to be the party’s future candidate. The move makes Hun Manet the de facto prime minister-in-waiting for the day Hun Sen, one of the world’s longest-tenured rulers, steps down.
The transition could prove tricky in a region where, despite a number of authoritarian governments, power is not generally determined by bloodlines. Whether Hun Manet will follow his father’s pro-Beijing tilt could affect the fierce U.S.-Chinese rivalry for friends and influence throughout Southeast Asia.
Cambodia borders Thailand, Laos and Vietnam and opens toward the South China Sea, where Washington and Beijing have issued conflicting territorial claims. Phnom Penh is a major recipient of infrastructure funding from China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a pet project of Chinese President Xi Jinping.
“Cambodia is far too deep in with China to be able to rebalance quickly” if Hun Manet becomes prime minister, said Sophal Ear, an Arizona State University associate dean and professor for global development and a co-author of the book “The Hungry Dragon: How China’s Resource Quest Is Reshaping the World.”
“Despite his West Point education and M.A. in economics from New York University, and Ph.D. in economics from Bristol, and while I know he is not averse to the U.S. on a personal level — having spent years in America and visited in the years since — the decision to tilt towards China is one that he alone cannot change,” Mr. Sophal Ear said in an interview.
When the prime minister visited Beijing in 2020, he brought his son for an introduction to Mr. Xi. It was another stop in an improbable career for the son.
In 1999, Hun Sen stood proudly next to his son at the U.S. Military Academy during a graduation ceremony when Hun Manet became the first Cambodian to earn a West Point diploma.
While attending the coeducational, four-year undergraduate college, which describes itself as “the pre-eminent leader development institution,” Hun Manet rubbed shoulders with U.S. Army officers during warfare training. Despite returning to his military career, he found time to earn graduate economics degrees from New York University and Britain’s University of Bristol.
With his West Point training in hand, Hun Manet became the Royal Cambodian Army’s commander and deputy commander in chief of the armed forces, plus deputy commander of his father’s bodyguards and head of Cambodia’s counterterrorism unit.
In one sign of Washington’s unhappiness with Hun Sen’s long authoritarian rule and warming ties with China, the U.S. last summer stopped allowing Cambodia to send students to West Point and other U.S. military academies.
“Following Cambodia’s curtailment of cooperation in several areas of traditional bilateral military-military engagement, the country lost its eligibility for the U.S. military service academy program,” Arend Zwartjes, a spokesman of the U.S. Embassy in Cambodia, told Voice of America.
The freeze may be in place for a while unless the son takes a different approach.
“Unless [Hun Manet] himself signals rapprochement with the United States through actions and not just words, the United States is likely to stay the course with Cambodia, cooling relations,” Mr. Sophal Ear said.
Hun Sen again irritated Washington in January when he made a trip to Myanmar to meet with the ruling military dictatorship in his role as chairman of the regional ASEAN bloc. Their talks offered a diplomatic lifeline to a coup-installed regime that the U.S. and many in the region had been trying to isolate.
Charles Dunst, an adjunct fellow (nonresident) with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote in an analysis last week that Cambodia’s tragic history, Hun Sen’s ruthless rise to power and his irritation with U.S. and Western demands for more democracy and political freedoms guide his policies.
“Hun Sen’s history has thus led him to consider democracy a cause of turmoil, not a means of deliverance from it — a view not so dissimilar from that of his benefactors in Beijing,” Mr. Dunst wrote.
In December, the Central Committee of Hun Sen’s powerful Cambodian People’s Party unanimously endorsed Hun Manet as “the prime minister candidate in the future.” With opposition parties dissolved ahead of the 2018 general elections, the Cambodian People’s Party holds all of parliament’s seats. The next general elections are scheduled for 2023.
Some expect Hun Sen to step aside at that time and allow his son to take over. Alternatively, if Hun Sen runs for reelection, he may be cementing Hun Manet’s status as heir apparent for elections in 2028.
Families and dynasties
Despite a dominating political position and a record of repression of his rivals, Hun Sen appears to be sensitive to the charge that he envisions a North Korea-style family dynasty in Cambodia.
“If Hun Manet makes a mistake, I will not support my son to be the prime minister because it affects the party,” Hun Sen said in a December speech. He even invited other Cambodian People’s Party senior officials to suggest other candidates, including some of their sons.
“Even if they are the sons of [party Vice President] Sar Kheng, [Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister] Tea Banh, or other deputy prime ministers, or [parliament’s First Vice President] Cheam Yeap’s son, please propose your candidates,” Hun Sen said, according to the Khmer Times.
Apparently to keep colleagues, rivals and his own son off guard, Hun Sen pledged to remain prime minister for another decade.
Still, few doubt Hun Manet has the inside track to the top job, given his father’s command-driven style of governing, after elections in 2018 resulted in a one-party control.
Still, the son will be shadowed by the legacy of his father’s complicated and bloodstained record.
Hun Sen lost an eye while fighting as a loyal midlevel Khmer Rouge commander during an anti-U.S. insurgency during the Vietnam War, which enabled Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot’s 1975-1979 murderous rule.
Apparently fearing he might be purged, Hun Sen defected to Vietnam in 1977 while Pol Pot’s government presided over the deaths of more than 1 million Cambodians by execution, torture and starvation.
In 1979, Vietnam invaded Cambodia, chased Pol Pot into the jungle and began a 10-year occupation with Hun Sen as Cambodia’s foreign minister and, in 1985, prime minister.
“Given that his father waged war against the U.S. — while [Hun Manet] was trained in war by the U.S. — Hun Manet’s deeper understanding of U.S. society, culture and politics may enable him to display more nuance in balancing Cambodia’s interests between the U.S. and China than has his father,” veteran Cambodia watcher Craig Etcheson said in an interview.
Mr. Etcheson researched Cambodian affairs for 40 years, including for more than a decade living in Cambodia. He authored four books about the country, including “Extraordinary Justice: Law, Politics, and the Khmer Rouge Tribunals.”
“I would expect that the U.S. military attaches in Phnom Penh attempt to maintain close links with Hun Manet and that U.S. ambassadors give him due attention,” Mr. Etcheson said.
Washington, however, may be in a weak position competing with Beijing for the favor of the presumptive next prime minister.
“The U.S. cannot win a bidding war against China for the loyalty of a dictatorship,” said Richard Garella, who was The Cambodia Daily newspaper’s managing editor in the 1990s, opposition leader Sam Rainsy’s press secretary in the late 1990s and a U.S.-funded International Republican Institute consultant in Cambodia in 2003.
“It would make sense for Hun Manet to run for a seat in the assembly at his earliest convenience. That way, he could be elected prime minister at any convenient time,” Mr. Garella said in an interview.
Hun Sen governs without opposition leaders, who previously waged a spirited underdog challenge to his increasing powers.
Prince Norodom Ranariddh, a former prime minister who yearned for a political comeback, died in self-exile at age 77 in France in November.
Also in November, the self-exiled Sam Rainsy lost his alliance with opposition leader Kem Sokha during a political feud. Kem Sokha, who headed the now-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party, is on trial in Cambodia on treason charges. He has denied the charges.
Several other opponents of Hun Sen have also been jailed, fled abroad, cowed into silence or had their political parties dissolved.
The prime minister’s anti-U.S. posture includes his attempt in 2017 to have his unidentified grandchild renounce his or her American citizenship.
“Now I am finding a way to renounce U.S. citizenship from my grandchild because probably the U.S. will make war with some countries and will require my grandchild to be a U.S. soldier,” the prime minister wrote in a Facebook post, according to The Associated Press.
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