Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s son set for pPower as succession plan unfolds

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Cambodian leader Hun Sen is poised to secure victory after a reign of nearly four decades, while simultaneously laying the groundwork for his eldest son to assume power in the future.

Despite the absence of genuine opposition parties, Sunday’s vote has been widely criticized as a sham, painting a grim picture of democracy in Cambodia even three decades after the UN-brokered peace accords ended a long period of violent conflict.

During his campaign, Prime Minister Hun Sen assured voters in June that his son, Hun Manet, would follow in his footsteps, stating, “Nobody can block the steps forward of Hun Sen or Hun Manet.”

Although no specific timeline for the transfer of power has been provided, the 45-year-old Hun Manet has taken on various campaign responsibilities this year, indicating his increasing involvement in the political landscape. In a symbolic gesture at a recent rally for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), Hun Sen handed the party flag to Hun Manet, who led a passionate march through Phnom Penh alongside supporters.

Hun Manet has also traveled across the nation, presiding over ceremonies and engaging with soldiers, workers, and CPP members. His message echoes his father’s emphasis on peace and development, as he asserts, “As long as the CPP continues to lead the country, can keep the peace and can keep balance, we all live with happiness.”

Critics, such as Phil Robertson from Human Rights Watch, argue that the prospect of a dynastic transition places Cambodia more in line with North Korea than a genuine democracy. Hun Sen has already allocated political roles to all three of his sons, with the eldest, Hun Manet, assuming the most significant responsibilities. Hun Manet, a member of the CPP’s influential permanent committee, will participate in parliamentary elections for the first time this weekend.

Since 2018, he has served as the commander of the Royal Cambodian Army and has engaged with foreign dignitaries and world leaders, including China’s President Xi Jinping, who is Cambodia’s primary ally and benefactor.

Hun Sen’s political trajectory has been shaped by his experiences during the Khmer Rouge regime, where he witnessed revolution and war as a young man. These hardships propelled him to become one of the most effective and ruthless politicians of his generation, leading him to assume the prime ministership at the age of 32 in 1985.

Throughout his rule, Hun Sen has solidified his power by neutralizing opponents through co-option, imprisonment, marginalization, or effective exile.

However, despite Hun Manet’s privileged upbringing and education abroad, including at the US military academy West Point, his Western education does not guarantee a more liberal approach. Sam Rainsy, an exiled politician and longstanding critic of the prime minister, drew parallels to Syria’s Assad dynasty, stating, “Syria’s Bashar al-Assad is more educated than Hafez al-Assad, but the son is politically worse than the father.”

Sebastian Strangio, an author who has extensively studied Hun Sen’s rule, remarked that Hun Manet has shown little inclination to introduce substantial reforms to the existing political system.

Political analyst Ou Virak compared Hun Manet to a skilled but untested martial arts fighter, noting that his lack of experience in the political arena raises questions about his ability to bring about change. Virak expressed concern that without his father’s support, Hun Manet would face significant challenges in making any alterations, likening it to putting an unproven fighter in the ring without adequate preparation.

As for Hun Sen himself, despite being 70 years old and having been hospitalized for “exhaustion” six years ago, he has not disclosed a precise timeline for his resignation. Moreover, he has reassured voters that he will maintain political influence even after leaving his post, stating, “Although Hun Sen won’t be the prime minister, the political management will still be in the hands of Hun Sen.”

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