Hun Sen Stands in the Way of His Own Succession Plan

Cambodia’s prime minister has outmaneuvered political opponents and groomed his oldest son for power, but does he know when to walk away?

By , a journalist covering politics, human rights, and Chinese development in Southeast Asia.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen shows his ballot to the media as he casts his vote at a polling station during local elections in Kandal province, Cambodia, on June 5.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen shows his ballot to the media as he casts his vote at a polling station during local elections in Kandal province, Cambodia, on June 5.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen shows his ballot to the media as he casts his vote at a polling station during local elections in Kandal province, Cambodia, on June 5. TANG CHHIN SOTHY/AFP via Getty Images

Cambodia’s ruling party once again waltzed to a lopsided victory in local elections this month, winning more than 99 percent of open commune chief seats amid allegations of irregularities. That wasn’t a surprise: Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has ruled the country for nearly 40 years, and in 2017, a political crackdown on the opposition turned Cambodia into a de facto one-party state.

With elections meaningless, all eyes are on Hun Sen’s oldest son, Hun Manet. The 44-year-old has been groomed to succeed his father; he currently commands the Cambodian army. At its party congress last December, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) formally anointed Hun Manet as its next candidate for prime minister when Hun Sen decides to step down. But the 69-year-old autocrat has approached his final political challenge—cementing his dynasty—with caution.

Hun Manet graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point, and his Western education continued at New York University and the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom. He came to national attention in Cambodia when he took on a major role during border clashes with Thailand between 2008 and 2011. Since 2020, Hun Manet has served as the head of the CPP’s youth wing, widely seen as a training ground for the party’s next generation of leaders.

Cambodia’s ruling party once again waltzed to a lopsided victory in local elections this month, winning more than 99 percent of open commune chief seats amid allegations of irregularities. That wasn’t a surprise: Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has ruled the country for nearly 40 years, and in 2017, a political crackdown on the opposition turned Cambodia into a de facto one-party state.

With elections meaningless, all eyes are on Hun Sen’s oldest son, Hun Manet. The 44-year-old has been groomed to succeed his father; he currently commands the Cambodian army. At its party congress last December, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) formally anointed Hun Manet as its next candidate for prime minister when Hun Sen decides to step down. But the 69-year-old autocrat has approached his final political challenge—cementing his dynasty—with caution.

Hun Manet graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point, and his Western education continued at New York University and the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom. He came to national attention in Cambodia when he took on a major role during border clashes with Thailand between 2008 and 2011. Since 2020, Hun Manet has served as the head of the CPP’s youth wing, widely seen as a training ground for the party’s next generation of leaders.

Cambodia’s national elections next year could ensure the smoothest transition for Hun Manet to the role of prime minister, as his father’s power has never been more secure. However, Hun Sen seems as reluctant as ever to let it go, making inconsistent statements about when his successor will take over. In 2017, Hun Sen said he would stay in power for at least 10 more years; in 2021, he gave himself another 10 years. He has previously indicated openness to Hun Manet taking over in 2028, an election year—while also floating the idea of 2029 or 2030.

Some observers suggest it could be even longer. “I have no doubt that Hun Sen will struggle to step down,” Lee Morgenbesser, a senior lecturer at Griffith University in Australia whose research focuses on authoritarian regimes, wrote in an email. “It is common for dictators who have been in power as long as he has to renege on their promise to leave (Mubarak in Egypt) or misjudge their level of support to stay on (Mugabe in Zimbabwe).”

Hun Sen seems aware that he’s at the peak of his power, as shown by his recent handling of a long-standing internal rival, Interior Minister Sar Kheng. When Hun Sen announced Hun Manet as his successor ahead of December’s party congress, endorsements rolled in from CPP leaders. Only Sar Kheng, who serves as CPP vice president and oversees the police, refused to back him. Hun Sen then mockingly dismissed Sar Kheng, saying it was “crazy, crazy, crazy” to consider that the interior minister could one day become prime minister.

The CPP also appointed two new vice presidents during the meetings: Cambodian Defense Minister Tea Banh and Deputy Prime Minister Men Sam An—both close allies of Hun Sen. This move served to shore up the prime minister’s support among military elites and to further dilute Sar Kheng’s influence. When it came time to vote, a defeated Sar Kheng joined the rest of the party in unanimously approving Hun Manet.

Hun Sen could likewise use the next decade to smooth Hun Manet’s road to power by phasing out the political elites who came of age during a period of conflict and turmoil in Cambodia, when it seemed anyone might come out on top. Some of Hun Sen’s peers may believe they could have been in his position if the chips had fallen differently. But the next generation of politicians has known nothing but Hun Sen’s leadership for most of their lives.

However, a lot could change for the Hun family in the coming years, particularly given looming economic challenges. In Cambodia, the economic fallout of the pandemic has been compounded by a debt crisis driven by an unscrupulous microfinance industry. Meanwhile, climate change, illegal fishing, and Chinese-financed dams threaten the Tonle Sap lake—the world’s largest inland fishery, which provides 60 percent of Cambodians’ protein intake—raising the specter of a food crisis.

Although the CPP has enjoyed five years with virtually no political challengers, discontent with Hun Sen’s rule remains. The Candlelight Party, which represents one faction of the fractured political opposition, had a disappointing performance in this month’s local elections, but it still won nearly 22 percent of the popular vote—even with its senior leaders in exile. It’s unclear if Hun Sen will turn on the Candlelight Party or allow it to build momentum, but both options carry risks. The prime minister is also getting old; if he suffers a medical emergency or rapid mental decline before Hun Manet has sufficient support, it could disrupt the succession plan.

It’s clear that Hun Sen either isn’t ready to step down or feels that Hun Manet is not ready to take over. But any perception of uncertainty could embolden potential opponents. Deciding when to pass on power “involves a trade-off” for Hun Sen, Morgenbesser said: Appointing Hun Manet sooner would give opponents less time to organize, while a longer-term plan “means more time for Hun Manet to solidify his network of supporters, but also more time for those outside that circle to potentially take action.” “Each of these options is risky,” he added.

Nonetheless, Hun Manet remains a relatively sure bet for Cambodia’s next prime minister. When he does take over, he’s not likely to be reform-minded; his foreign degrees are no match for the Cambodian political machine. Over the years, Hun Sen has built a system based on a web of patronage that has allowed influential elites to pilfer the country’s natural resources with impunity. Some ministers have approached this system as supposed change-makers only to change their tune. No one could alter Hun Sen’s entrenched network without unseating themselves, and Hun Manet is no exception.

Furthermore, Hun Manet’s position will be much less secure than his father’s. Hun Sen is a political mastermind who has outplayed his opponents for decades. Hun Manet will likely struggle to command the same level of respect from political elites. He may need to become more ruthless than Hun Sen as he fends off potential challenges from other party leaders—or even his own brothers, who include the director of military intelligence. “The crucial test will be the moment Hun Manet demonstrates any sign of ineptitude or weakness, providing a cause for those opposed to him to strike,” Morgenbesser said.

Hun Sen is famously fascinated with the 16th-century legend of Sdech Kan, a commoner who overthrew the Cambodian king to take the throne. Although he seems to see many parallels between his own story and that of Sdech Kan, there is one that he is keen to avoid: the failure to establish a dynasty. Hun Sen became Cambodia’s foreign minister at the age of 26 and prime minister at 32; he has wielded tremendous power for much of his adult life. Hun Sen faces many difficult decisions to ensure Hun Manet makes it to the prime minister’s office, but one of the biggest obstacles may be his own reluctance to walk away.

Andrew Nachemson is a journalist covering politics, human rights, and Chinese development in Southeast Asia.
 Twitter: @ANachemson

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