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Hun Sen's Cambodia

Is Hun Sen's dynasty built to last?

No guarantees Cambodia's next generation will embrace heir apparent Hun Manet

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen, left, stands with his son Hun Manet after graduation ceremonies at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in May 1999.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- As Cambodia comes to terms with many more years under the leadership of Hun Sen, the focus is now on his son Hun Manet, who is widely expected to succeed him.

Without any real opposition, Prime Minister Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party won all but two seats in the country's general election on July 29. Its only real threat, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, was forced to disband in November after its leader Kem Sokha was arrested for allegedly plotting a U.S.-backed revolution.

After 33 years in power, 67-year-old Hun Sen said he would only stay on as prime minister for another two terms, or 10 years. Many believe he would want his 40-year-old eldest son, Hun Manet, to inherit his "dynasty.

"Hun Sen was a senior military officer in the brutal Pol Pot regime that murdered around 2 million Cambodians. The prime minister has always denied complicity with the regime and had fled to Vietnam in June 1977 to join troops opposed to Pol Pot. Four months later, Hun Manet was born. Hun Sen returned to Cambodia in 1978 after the Vietnamese invaded.

Hun Sen took office as prime minister in 1985, and has since tightened his grip on power. He sent Hun Manet to the U.S., where he graduated from the elite U.S. Military Academy. After that, he went on to New York University to study business administration and even had a stint at the World Bank.

"Strongman," a book on Hun Sen co-authored by Southeast Asia researchers Harish and Julie Mehta, revealed Hun Manet's mixed feelings about his father. In an interview, a 26-year-old Hun Manet said: "Being my father's son, some people have a tendency to think that I can ... get whatever I want without having to do much. ... On the other hand, it gives me strength and incentive to work hard in order to prove them wrong."

Katsuhiro Shinohara, a former Japanese ambassador to Cambodia, was able to shed some light on Hun Manet after having had conversations with him in the local Khmer language. He remembers Hun Manet as being even-tempered and having foresight, often using the phrase "in the long term."

Shinohara said: "His father quickly loses his temper, but Hun Manet was different. He was always in command of himself. You are wrong to cast him as riding on his father's coattails."

Hun Manet became major general of the Cambodian army in January 2011 at a relatively young age of 33. The following month, Cambodian and Thai troops clashed over territorial claims in an area near Preah Vihear Temple, a World Heritage site on a mountain straddling the two countries. This resulted in many casualties, including civilians.

Hun Manet at the time commanded Cambodian troops at the site of the conflict and it was his role there that propelled him to prominence within the country. A Thai newspaper quoted a senior Thai military officer then as saying: "Prime Minister Hun Sen made his eldest son's presence known domestically through the accomplishments in the conflict the country has achieved over its neighboring country."

Hun Manet was promoted to general from lieutenant general in July just before the general election.

With the CNRP gone, Hun Sen is free to consolidate his power. And in Asia, such a transference of power within families is hardly rare, as can be seen from the chart.

Ikuo Iwasaki, a professor at Takushoku University who studies hereditary politics in Asia, said: "The stabilization of a society solidifies the hierarchy. It is the result of combining a prestigious family making politics a family business and people's faith that 'we trust a child of a proven prime minister.'"

Whether Cambodians will accord Hun Manet with the same respect remains to be seen. A likely destabilizing factor is Cambodia's unique demographic structure -- a result of its tragic history. The average age in the country is just 24 as of 2015, according to data from the U.N.

Cambodia has an outsize population of youth because of the genocide committed under the Pol Pot regime. The babies born in 1993, when the civil war ended, and after are approaching voting age.

"People of this generation are generally not familiar with Hun Sen's achievement -- he claims to have saved the country from those loyal to Pol Pot and the civil war," said Hiroshi Yamada, a professor of Cambodian politics at Niigata University of International and Information Studies. "That is also the reason why the Cambodian People's Party struggled in the general election five years ago."

In the next 10 years, as Hun Sen prepares for a transition of power, the number of children who do not know about the war and the claims of his role in it will rise. Most of them are likely to form the middle class, given the rapid growth of the economy.

This raises the question of whether the new generation will embrace Hun Sen's dynasty and if they will tolerate the iron-fist rule.


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