Eyeing the exit, long-serving Cambodian leader keeps it all in the family

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BANGKOK, Thailand — When Hun Sen first took power in Cambodia, Ronald Reagan was wrapping up his first term in office, Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” topped the charts and the Soviet Union was still a superpower.

Unlike many of his authoritarian peers, the Cambodian prime minister says he’s stepping down on his own terms and his own timetable this summer, having found a suitable successor — his son.

Mr. Hun Sen is expected to resign after winning reelection in July, ending a remarkable journey from a severely wounded guerrilla in Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge during the Vietnam War to become one of the world’s longest-ruling leaders, crushing dissent and unsettling the U.S. with a steady move toward China.

And unlike other authoritarian leaders who overstay their welcome, Mr. Hun Sen is leaving on something of a high note: When President Biden flew to Phnom Penh to meet with him and attend an Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in November 2022, it boosted the prime minister’s domestic and international standing.

But Mr. Hun Sen is stepping aside at a delicate time, as the rivalry between China and the U.S. in Cambodia’s military, economic, and diplomatic affairs heats up. Cambodians are bracing for a generational change when, as expected, Hun Sen wins nationwide parliamentary elections on July 23 and passes his job to his son, Hun Manet — possibly immediately after the polls or later this year.

“Now we have found the young generation that will come to replace us,” Mr. Hun Sen told villagers on March 14. “We should hand it over better to them, and just stay behind them.”

The prime minister is eyeing the exit even as he retains a stranglehold on the Southeast Asian country, with his Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) occupying all of parliament’s seats.

No one expects Hun Manet, 45, to match his 70-year-old father’s legacy from the 1970s onward, surviving U.S. bombs, the Khmer Rouge regime of Pol Pot, Vietnam’s 1979 invasion, and the struggle for power in post-war clashes. He even survived the historical ignominy associated with Pol Pot’s murderous rule.

During the 1970s, Mr. Hun Sen said in a 1989 press conference, he and many other Cambodians proudly considered the anti-U.S. Khmer Rouge guerrillas as “a national, patriotic movement, and therefore I was also in that movement.”

“I was only a simple Khmer Rouge,” he added, bristling when asked about the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal policies and harsh repression of opponents. But Mr. Hun Sen said he eventually felt betrayed by the brutality of Pol Pot’s rule and began plotting against him.

To escape bloody internal Khmer Rouge purges, Mr. Hun Sen defected in 1977, fleeing east across the border into Vietnam where he was recruited for a force to return to Cambodia and oust the regime. In January 1979, Vietnam invaded Cambodia, chased Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge fighters into the jungle, and installed Mr. Hun Sen as Cambodia’s foreign minister.

In 1985, during Vietnam’s nearly 11-year occupation, Hanoi promoted him to prime minister. He has been the country’s dominant political figure for the nearly four decades since then.


It has been an era of transitions. During the past few decades, Mr. Hun Sen weaned Cambodia from an overwhelming dependence on Vietnam, and instead turned to China for trade, aid and security. To the consternation of the Pentagon, he recently allowed Beijing to fund, develop and use Ream Naval Base on Cambodia’s southern coast along the resource-rich, strategic Gulf of Thailand.

On March 19, the navies of China and Cambodia — for the first time — practiced a training drill while organizing a land-based “Golden Dragon 2023” military exercise that lasted more than two weeks. A Chinese navy landing ship, the Jinggangshan, brought some personnel and equipment for Golden Dragon and also led a two-hour exercise with two Cambodian patrol boats off Cambodia’s Sihanoukville port, near Ream, according to Chinese reports.

Cambodia’s coastal waters open on to the South China Sea, where China and the U.S. have become increasingly confrontational over territorial and access rights, including undersea resources. At home, Mr. Hun Sen’s welcoming of Chinese money, companies and projects has transformed the skylines of Phnom Penh and other cities.

Mr. Hun Sen is reportedly also allowing China to deepen Ream’s port so bigger ships, including military vessels, can dock for maintenance, and construct a dry dock that can be drained so a ship’s hull can be repaired, although both countries deny that the project is being done solely so Beijing can use it for military purposes.

Cambodian Defense Minister Tea Banh said last year the port would be open to all countries.

“Chinese interest in bases in the region goes back at least to its construction of the airport in Kompong Chhnang during the Khmer Rouge regime,” said Rich Garella, a former U.S.-funded International Republican Institute consultant in Cambodia in 2003, and former Cambodia Daily newspaper managing editor. “The U.S. is desperately trying to maintain appearances, but its influence [in Cambodia] is a shadow of what it was in the mid-90s. It just can’t compete with China.”

Hun Sen’s manipulation of his eldest son into the prime ministry will result in “another generation, at least, of Cambodians whose dreams of democracy are denied, [and] a lasting humiliation for the Western funders that he played for fools,” Mr. Garella said.

Prime minister ‘in the future’

Mr. Hun Sen first announced he was supporting his West Point-educated son to be the next prime minister in 2021. The ruling CPP’s central committee unanimously endorsed Mr. Hun Manet as “the prime minister candidate in the future” in December of that year.

In addition to his West Point training, Mr. Hun Manet earned a master’s degree in economics from New York University, and a PhD. in economics from Bristol University in England. That education may do him well in negotiations with China, the biggest investor in Cambodia.

His U.S. and British education, culture and social connections may sway Mr. Hun Manet’s international decision-making. His rise through the ranks has been thorough: After West Point, Mr. Hun Manet became Royal Cambodian Army commander, armed forces deputy commander-in-chief, plus deputy commander of his father’s bodyguards and head of Cambodia’s counterterrorism unit.

He became a four-star general on March 17, and some think his international background may make him an easier figure for the West to deal with than was the case with his father

“The commanders of the Australian and New Zealand armies sought meetings with him last October,” wrote Charles Dunst, adjunct fellow with the Southeast Asia Program at the D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, in a Feb. 13 analysis. “There is a better potential for partnership with Hun Manet than there has been with Hun Sen for at least the last decade.”

But there will be some repair work to do with the Biden administration. During the past few decades, U.S.-Cambodia relations slowly deteriorated as Washington repeatedly criticized Mr. Hun Sen’s record on human rights and civil liberties.

“It will be difficult for Hun Manet to extend an olive branch to Washington and its allies, particularly if human rights violations and Chinese developments at the Ream Naval Base continue,” Mr. Dunst said.

The son also inherits the father’s political opponents.

“Hun Manet is not a good choice to become prime minister,” said Mu Sochua, a onetime vice president of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party now living in self-exile in Providence, Rhode Island. “He has no political experience, no charisma, and there is no way that he would be considered for the job but for his father.”

“Hun Manet as prime minister would have to give orders to ruling party veterans who are far senior to him in terms of age and experience. Many of these veterans are disgruntled by their scant reward for decades of loyalty,” Mu Sochua said.

“The fragility of Hun Sen’s rule and his succession plan should not be underestimated,” Ms. Mu Sochua said in an interview.

Exiled political opposition leader Sam Rainsy — who often voices elaborate conspiracies critical of Mr. Hun Sen — broke with CNRP leader Kem Sokha last year, splintering the anti-regime forces.

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