Spotlight - Cambodia: May 9, 2023

On April 20, the Cambodian government promoted Hun Manet—the prime minister’s eldest son, the deputy commander-in-chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, and the commander of the Royal Cambodian Army—to the rank of four-star general. Defense Minister Tea Banh presided over the ceremony. The defense chief, a long-time Hun Sen supporter but erstwhile skeptic of Hun Manet’s planned ascension to the premiership, said that the princeling’s promotion reflected his commitment “to serve the nation, military, and Cambodian people.”

The move was widely reported on by local, regional, and global outlets. Less reported, however, was the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) announcement on May 2 that Hun Manet will stand as a candidate for Phnom Penh in the July National Assembly elections—in which the CPP, facing no real opposition, will surely triumph. Military officials are not allowed to run in national elections, so Hun Manet is expected to resign his military positions. According to some reports, he already has.

Hun Manet is still likely to succeed his father as prime minister. After all, the party named him the CPP’s future premiership candidate after some coaxing by Hun Sen in late 2021. But the decision to have him resign his military post in favor of a parliamentary role seems like a two-headed effort to, first, win Hun Manet some public legitimacy by having him go through the motions of democracy, and second, strengthen the military’s influence within the legislature.

The first effort recognizes that Hun Manet, who has neither the charisma nor the bona fides of his father, can win some Cambodian public support by leaning into the imagery of democracy, if not the substance. He has already improved his standing by playing the role of statesman, meeting over the last year with the commanders of the Australian and New Zealand armies, as well as with Japan’s foreign minister. In early May, Hun Manet hosted a meeting with Singaporean senior minister and coordinating minister for national security Teo Chee Hean. Serving in the country’s parliament should similarly help improve Hun Manet’s domestic image, particularly in rural parts of Cambodia where understanding of how democracy should work is limited.

The second effort is something of a fail-safe. In case Hun Manet’s image efforts do not boost his credibility among both ordinary citizens and elites—leaving him open to a challenge by rival CPP factions—the CPP will lean on officials loyal to the ruling family to ensure Hun Manet gets the premiership. Having more of those officials in prominent positions will pay off, which is why on May 2 the CPP nominated several of these loyal senior military and police officials to stand for parliamentary posts alongside Hun Manet.

The first effort is about soft power; the second is about hard power—in case soft power simply is not enough to ensure Hun Manet ascension.

Regardless, until Hun Sen is out of the picture, he will retain the real power in Cambodia, even if he manages to pass off the premiership sometime after this summer’s election. The decorative elements of Cambodian politics might change, like the regalia on a military man’s lapel, but with Hun Sen holding the reins, the substance of the country’s politics will stay much the same.

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