Spotlight - Cambodia: December 9, 2021

On December 2, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen endorsed his 44-year-old son Hun Manet—a deputy commander of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces and joint chief of staff—to succeed him, declaring: “I support my son to continue as prime minister.” Hun Sen, who has ruled since 1985, defended his patrimonial plans by referencing Japan, which he said “has its own dynasty,” because former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s “grandfather was prime minister” while “Abe’s father was a foreign minister and Abe was a prime minister.”

Yet he soon softened his endorsement, saying on December 6 that when the “opportunity” for elections without him comes in 2028, Hun Manet should run alongside the sons of Defense Minister Tea Banh, Interior Minister Sar Kheng, and National Assembly first vice-president Cheam Yeap.

His reversal reflects worries about the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP)’s endemic rivalries. Top cadres doubt both the current regime’s strength—with some having sought Cypriot citizenship as an “escape plan”—and that of Hun Manet, whose military and party credentials do not necessarily translate into support from elites worried about his inexperience and lack of public support.

Whereas Hun Sen’s legitimacy comes from his claims to have delivered Cambodia from war, Hun Manet, a child of privilege who has been described as “stiff,” has no such claims and lacks his father’s charisma.

Senior leaders also want the job for themselves. Hun Sen, however, said that because Sar Kheng (who would succeed him based on party ranking order) and Tea Banh would be in their late seventies by 2028, it would be “crazy” for them to take over, and that he himself (who would also be in his late seventies) should just stay on: “If Kheng comes to be or Banh comes to be […] let Hun Sen do it.”

Sar Kheng, though, has not endorsed Hun Manet, although his son, the education secretary of state, has. Sar Kheng instead said that he would follow the CPP’s decision, thereby showing loyalty to the party over the Hun clan. Even if he does eventually endorse Hun Manet, this maneuvering has sent a clear message.

These complications demonstrate why only a small group of non-monarchies have ever seamlessly passed power from one autocratic ruler to his preferred heir. As the German sociologist Max Weber wrote, “Everywhere the problem of succession has been the Achilles heel of purely Caesarist Rule.” Hun Sen’s Cambodia is no exception.

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.​​
Charles Dunst

Charles Dunst

Former Adjunct Fellow (Non-resident), Southeast Asia Program