Spotlight - Cambodia: October 11, 2022

From October 4-6, Australia hosted the Land Forces International Land Defence Exposition 2022, self-described as a “powerful forum for key decision-makers from throughout the region.” Several leading defense firms and government officials made their way to Brisbane for the exposition. Among them was Hun Manet—a four-star general, commander of the Royal Cambodian Army, and the eldest son and expected successor of Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen.

More notable than Hun Manet’s attendance were the meetings he held on the exposition’s sidelines. Somewhat predictably, he met with Lieutenant General Romeo S. Brawner Jr., the commander of the Philippine Army. More surprisingly, he also met with Lieutenant General Simon Stuart, commander of the Australian Army, and Major General John Boswell, commander of the New Zealand Army.

Neither of these latter two meetings produced much substance. But both nonetheless signal the thinking of policymakers in Canberra and Wellington. Indeed, Stuart and Boswell seem to have met with Hun Manet not necessarily because he runs the Cambodian military, but because they believe him to be Cambodia’s next leader.

Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia since 1985, has repeatedly made clear his plans for Hun Manet’s eventual succession. While Hun Manet lacks the charisma and legitimacy of his father—and thus the support of some top Cambodian People’s Party cadres, who want the top job for themselves or their sons—his military status has helped boost his bona fides. So too does meeting with senior foreign officials like Stuart and Boswell, along with Japanese foreign minister Yoshimasa Hayashi earlier this year. Hun Manet also met with Lori Abele, a director in the Office of the U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, although she is significantly less senior than Stuart, Boswell, and Hayashi.

These meetings all reflect the assumption that Hun Manet will eventually take over from his father, who is 70 or 71 years old, and that it is therefore prudent to engage and build strong ties with him now. Likely influencing that view is the 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, who has cozied up to China and repeatedly accused the United States of trying to overthrow him.

Yet it is hard to imagine that Hun Manet will live up to these optimistic expectations, given that Beijing is the top backer of his family’s rule, on which a growing number of Cambodians have soured. The fact, meanwhile, is that if Hun Manet comes to power—which is not at all guaranteed, given the difficulties of patrimonial succession—he will become prime minister in a non-democratic fashion, even if “elections” are held. That will make it politically difficult for any U.S. administration to substantially boost ties with a Hun Manet-led Cambodia, given long-running Congressional frustration with the Hun clan; this will in turn make it difficult for Hun Manet to extend an olive branch to Washington and its allies.

Western policymakers should thus not assume that a Hun Manet-led Cambodia will be much friendlier to them than Hun Sen’s Cambodia has been. But one cannot fault Australia, New Zealand, and others for hoping and for trying; it is better to lay the groundwork for the best than to simply expect the worst. One hopes, though, that Canberra, Wellington, and their partners are also preparing for the political discord that promises to accompany Hun Manet’s attempted accession—and even for what a Cambodia without the Hun clan might look like.

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