Prak Chan Thul
Photo by: Heng Chivoan
Prime Minister Hun Sen, centre, has overseen economic growth, improved living standards and a reduction in poverty.
When a young soldier was made a two-star general and infantry commander this month at the age of only 33, some in Cambodia saw a political dynasty taking shape.
The rapid rise of Major-General Hun Manet has drawn attention to a topic rarely discussed in Cambodia: who will succeed his father, long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Comparisons have been made between the rise of Hun Manet and that of Kim Jong-un, the son of ailing North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, promoted from obscurity in September to be a general and politburo member in what was seen as the unveiling of a successor.
But analysts say the prospect of Hun Sen stepping aside is inconceivable right now and it’s too soon to make that link. Rather they see Hun Manet’s promotion as a sign of both the deep-rooted nepotism in Cambodia and the unrelenting efforts of Hun Sen to consolidate power for many years to come.
“I’d say Hun Sen’s plan is to hold on in office for as long as he can and give his son a chance to amass as much power in the military as possible,” said Tony Kevin, an Australian academic and former ambassador to Cambodia in the 1990s.
“He’s pushing 60, and for a leader in Asia, that’s pretty young, really. With his son as a senior military general, he has an insurance policy and it’s understandable he’d want that. But if this is part of a dynastic plan – it’s too soon to tell now.”
Some political analysts in Cambodia believe Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge guerrilla, is privately concerned that a challenge to his 26-year rule could one day emerge, not from his political opponents but from within his Cambodian People’s Party or among a powerful and growing crop of local tycoons.
Hun Sen’s firm hand and pro-business policies are credited with attracting foreign investment that has put Cambodia on a steady course of growth and stability after decades of brutal civil war turned the former French colony into a failed state.
His successful blend of populism, nationalism and cronyism has earned him the overwhelming support of the electorate and kept business elites onside, but analysts say any shift in that dynamic could one day lead to his undoing.
Enter Hun Manet, the eldest and most privileged of Hun Sen’s six children, whose promotion to a plum military post now makes a coup d’etat against his father seem far less likely.
Hun Manet has kept a low profile since graduating from West Point military academy in the United States and then getting an economics doctorate from Britain’s Bristol University – a far cry from his father’s rudimentary education at a rural monastery.
Hun Sen has defended his son’s promotion as in accordance with the rules. “He has been military age for 16 years already,” he said. “The military is obliged to promote in accordance with its internal framework.”
But many in Cambodia think Hun Manet is being groomed to one day take over the reins of power.
“There’s an old saying that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” said Son Soubert, a prominent political commentator and adviser to Cambodia’s King Norodom Sihamoni.
“The question is whether Mr Hun Manet ... will be accepted by all the military’s high-ranking officials and factions within the CPP. This kind of kin succession may not lead to the stability required to attract much-needed foreign investment.”
Others say there are a number of potential successors within the CPP and it would be wrong to assume Hun Manet, who was already deputy chief of his father’s bodyguard unit and head of counter-terrorism in Cambodia, is the favoured candidate.
None would find it easy to challenge a political warrior like Hun Sen, who says he will rule until the day he dies.
Critics say he has leant on the judiciary to silence opponents and used his party’s parliamentary majority to push through laws aimed at stifling dissent and muzzling the media.
His rivals have paid a heavy price. Opposition leader Sam Rainsy has gone into exile to avoid jail.
His authoritarianism has been largely tolerated by the public while living standards improved thanks to economic growth, rural development and a reduction in poverty, factors that make another CPP win likely when the next election takes place in 2013.
“I see no real threats or challenges to Hun Sen in the next few years,” said Ian Bryson, a Singapore-based regional analyst for Control Risks.
“Nothing happens quickly in Cambodia. We’re in the middle of a parliamentary term, the government has survived the [global] economic crisis and an inflation bubble and there are no security issues, and that says a lot for his government’s stability.”
Kevin, the retired Australian diplomat, said political change could be expected only if Hun Sen failed to keep CPP members and Cambodia’s new moneyed elite onside.
“He knows the nature of politics in Cambodia, the alliances with big money, and he runs the dominant party with no serious opposition,” Kevin said. “As long as he gives these groups power and the freedom to make money, he should be fine.”