What's Next for Cambodia's Princeling?

Three out of every four Cambodians have never known life without Hun Sen. The prime minister—currently the longest-serving one in the world—came into power during the Vietnamese occupation in 1985. Some 75 percent of Cambodians were born after that.

Yet Hun Sen is only 70 or 71 years old, depending on who you ask (and if you ask Hun Sen himself) and appears to be in reasonably good health. There is no reason to think that he will disappear from the scene any time soon.

But there are some indications that Hun Sen is planning to hand control of Cambodia to his eldest son, Hun Manet, the 44-year-old four-star general and commander of the Royal Cambodian Army, sooner than expected—perhaps as soon as this summer, following the July elections in which Hun Sen will almost surely further cement his and the Cambodian People’s Party’s (CPP) grip on power. Any handoff to Hun Manet will be carefully managed, however, with Hun Sen planning to remain CPP president and likely looking to pull at least some strings from behind the scenes. Either way, U.S. and allied officials would be wise to begin considering how this transition will play out, as well as what Cambodia with Hun Manet, and eventually without Hun Sen, will look like.

There is no guarantee that Hun Manet’s ascension will go smoothly, given widespread displeasure among Cambodian youth with his father’s governance, particularly the country’s alignment with China. But the Hun clan is currently riding something of a high, with people believing Hun Sen effectively managed the Covid-19 crisis; engineered two successful meetings with U.S. president Joe Biden (the Cambodian public relations importance of which should not be understated); and shifted the economy in a positive direction, with the country expected to post strong growth rates in 2023 and beyond.

There is, then, a somewhat lessened chance that Hun Sen’s handover to Hun Manet prompts significant public outrage in the short term. Certainly, there will be displeasure in Phnom Penh, where the country’s democratic-minded elite are based. But as is often the case, the capital is a mirage. Less than 20 percent of Cambodians live there; close to 80 percent of Cambodians, on the other hand, are subsistence farmers and likely more concerned with the provision of public goods—like the schools and pagodas Hun Sen and Hun Manet regularly open in their names—than the concept of democracy.

The pliability of Cambodia’s majority could enable a smoother transition from Hun Manet. Yet the princeling remains likely to face some opposition from CPP elites who want power for themselves or their children. When Hun Sen said last December that Hun Manet would succeed him, leaders like Interior Minister Sar Kheng and Defense Minister Tea Banh hesitated at least somewhat to offer their endorsements before eventually going along with the prime minister’s plans.

Hun Sen may have promised CPP leaders like these two that their children would receive plum posts in the next generation of Hun clan leadership. The government has already replaced Agriculture Minister Veng Sakhon with the 43-year-old Dith Tina, a former secretary of state for the Ministry of Mines and Energy—and the son of Supreme Court justice and Hun Sen backer Dith Munty.

More such generational promotions seem likely, probably after the Hun clan and the CPP sweep to victory next summer. These moves could quell some party challenges to Hun Manet, but some officials—particularly Sar Kheng, who first refused to endorse Hun Manet and promised to support whoever the CPP endorsed, demonstrating a commitment to the party over the Hun clan—may not be satisfied. It will be difficult for Hun Sen to satisfy men like Sar Kheng, who have achieved everything one could hope, except the premiership. It will be difficult, too, for Hun Sen himself to step away from the only post he has known for nearly four decades.

Some foreign officials, however, are beginning to at least hedge their bets by building ties with Hun Manet. That seems to be why the commanders of the Australian and New Zealand armies sought meetings with him last October. There is practical interest in building ties with the man who will likely rule Cambodia sooner rather than later.

Yet if it is relatively clear that Hun Manet will eventually rule Cambodia, it is unclear how he will do so. There is a long-held notion that Hun Manet—who attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York University, and the United Kingdom’s University of Bristol—will be more friendly to the West and its partners than his father. That might be moderately true, but it is hard to imagine that Hun Manet will fully reorientate Cambodia in the way the West might like, particularly if Hun Sen remains an influence behind the scenes.

The fact, meanwhile, is that if Hun Manet comes to power, he will have done so in a fundamentally nondemocratic way, making it difficult for any U.S. administration to rebuild and boost ties with a Hun Manet-led Cambodia, given long-running congressional frustration with his clan. That state of affairs will in turn make it hard for Hun Manet to extend an olive branch to Washington and its allies, particularly if human rights violations and Chinese developments at Ream Naval Base continue apace.

In the long term, though, Western policymakers will likely find Hun Manet a preferable partner to his father, especially when Hun Sen is eventually off the scene. Hun Manet has no personal or historical disdain for the United States; rather, he clearly has some affinity for the country—and the United Kingdom—given the time he spent living in both. There is a better potential for partnership with Hun Manet than there has been with Hun Sen for at least the last decade.

But given that Hun Manet lacks the charisma and political legitimacy of his father, who claims to have delivered Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge era and brought the country relative prosperity, he will likely focus on issues that will garner him popular support: economic development and the provision of public goods. That focus will probably lead him first to China, which has long provided such benefits to Hun Sen’s government in exchange for geopolitical and other support. Yet that focus could also lead Hun Manet to try and better balance Beijing and Washington. Practically, it would be unwise for him to maintain Cambodia’s alignment with China when he could balance Beijing and Washington and extract economic benefits from both, not to mention U.S. partners like Australia, Japan, and South Korea.

There is thus a chance that Hun Manet, if he does come to power in a relatively bloodless manner, could shift Cambodia’s foreign policy in a direction more like that of Malaysia or Thailand—countries that appreciate and welcome Western interest and investment, while also remaining close partners of Beijing.

That, however, is a best-case scenario. It is the one that assumes Hun Manet can overcome the historic troubles of patrimonial successions, and that the United States will be able to at least somewhat overlook the nondemocratic nature of his ascension in the name of rebuilding what has long been a poor relationship with Phnom Penh. Neither development seems particularly likely to happen.

But U.S. and aligned policymakers should still do what they can to bring such a situation into reality. It is surely better to lay the groundwork for the best in Cambodia than to simply expect and accept the worst.

Charles Dunst is an adjunct fellow (non-resident) with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Charles Dunst
Adjunct Fellow (Non-resident), Southeast Asia Program