Spotlight - Cambodia: February 15, 2023

On February 9, the Cambodian news outlet VOD reported that Hun Manet, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s son and chosen successor, had signed off on the provision of $100,000 in aid to earthquake-hit Turkey, even though the prime minister himself is the only official with the power to make such decisions.

Hun Sen almost immediately accused the outlet of publishing an “intentionally slanderous” article. He demanded a public apology from VOD; the outlet expressed “regret” about the confusion, saying that it had merely quoted Phay Siphan, the government’s long-time spokesperson. In turn, Hun Sen mused, “are the words ‘regret’ and ‘tolerance’ [used in VOD’s letter] interchangeable with ‘apology’?” and promised “I cannot accept it.” And so, on February 12, he ordered the Ministry of Information to revoke VOD’s license; police showed up at the outlet’s Phnom Penh offices on February 13 with an order to shut them down.

The prime minister’s decision to shutter VOD carries short-term, reputational downsides—as evinced by widespread reporting on VOD’s closure and criticism from Western governments—that risk negatively affecting Cambodia through possible Western sanctions or further trade restrictions. But Hun Sen nonetheless clearly believes that closing the outlet, based on the flimsiest of rationales related to the Turkey story, will help his family in the long-term by paving the way for Hun Manet’s eventual ascension to prime minister.  

The Turkey story is not serious enough to carry real ramifications for the Hun clan. But VOD has repeatedly published stories on issues like corruption and gang violence that do negatively impact Cambodians’ views of his government, and thus Hun Manet. Closing the outlet—after closing the Cambodia Daily in 2017 and neutering the Phnom Penh Post in 2018—serves to remove those stories from the Cambodian media ecosystem and allow government-friendly outlets, like Fresh News and the Khmer Times, to dominate. Such domination will only further pave the way for the electoral victory of Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) in this July’s elections, which are expected to be neither free nor fair (and tilted strongly in the CPP’s favor).

That domination will likely also help pave the way for the eventual accension of Hun Manet, who has already taken on the trappings of leadership, including by accompanying his father on a recent visit to China to meet with Chinese president Xi Jinping.

Yet Hun Manet lacks the charisma, legitimacy, and personality management skills that have been so vital to his father’s longevity—and thus lacks the support of both the public and of some top CPP cadres, who want the top job for themselves or their children. Clamping down on critical media is one way to stifle such criticism before it takes root at all levels of society, worsening the rivalries endemic to the party and giving non-Hun clan elites, particularly among the second generation of leaders ostensibly helmed by Hun Manet, an excuse to move against him in the name of “the public.” (The Thai military leaned on a similar populist rationale to justify its own 2014 coup.)

As Hun Sen prepares to step back from the premiership and hand it to his son, possibly in 2024 or 2025, more such repression seems likely.

These moves may help Hun Manet take over in the short-term while his father hangs around in the background, but they will limit the younger man’s foreign policy options by worsening Western opinions of Cambodia, thus limiting U.S. and European willingness to engage the country both politically and economically.

Still, it seems clear that Hun Manet will become prime minister within the next few years. How he will lead—and whether he can manage Cambodia’s tricky domestic politics and foreign policy well enough to stay there—is anything but.

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