Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen has named his second son head of the country’s military intelligence department, prompting criticism from opposition officials and political watchdogs who call the appointment part of a bid to strengthen the longtime leader’s grip on power.
In a subdecree dated Sept. 16 and made public Wednesday, Hun Sen ordered that his son, General Hun Manith, 34, be promoted from deputy chief of the intelligence department of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) to head of the department.
Hun Manith—a two-star general—replaces his former boss Chea Dara, who is now serving as deputy commander-in-chief of the RCAF, the subdecree said.
In addition to his new post, Hun Manith also serves as deputy chief of the Cabinet and deputy secretary general of the national authority for land issues.
Hun Sen’s eldest son, Lt. Gen. Hun Manet, 38, is head of Cambodia’s counterterrorism department, while his third son, Hun Many, 33, is a member of parliament and head of the country’s youth federation. The prime minister also has two daughters.
The appointment drew condemnation from senior opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) member Prince Sisowath Thomico, who told RFA’s Khmer Service the move suggests Hun Sen “fears for his security” and that Cambodia’s political situation is “fragile.”
“We must admit that Cambodia doesn’t enjoy peace and stability yet,” said Prince Thomico, who is King Norodom Sihamoni’s cousin and former special adviser to the monarch.
“This appointment shows that he is defending himself,” he said of Hun Sen, who in January marked 30 years as prime minister of Cambodia.
Ou Virak, president of Future Forum, a local policy research group, told RFA that Hun Manith’s appointment was “not a typical military reshuffle” and said the move was intended to “consolidate power” for Hun Sen.
As the intelligence unit oversees internal military and civil affairs, Hun Sen can use his son’s position to help him head off any challenge to his power, he added.
“This is not a military reform, it is part of a strategy to appoint his son to prominent positions of control,” Ou Virak said.
“The intelligence department defends against internal threats, not just those from outside.”
Typical military reform
Government spokesman Phay Siphan responded to criticism by saying the appointment was simply a part of reforms designed to make the military more efficient.
He said speculation about Hun Manith’s promotion is being made by people with “bad intentions.”
“[Criticism] is unhealthy—they are looking at [Hun Sen] in a bad way,” Phay Siphan told RFA.
“This is purely part of administrative reforms based on qualifications and expertise.”
Neither Chea Dara nor Hun Manith could be reached for comment Thursday.
Hun Sen is one of the longest-serving heads of government in the world.
He was installed as foreign minister by the Vietnamese after their 1979 invasion of Cambodia to remove the Khmer Rouge, took over as prime minister in 1985, and maintained power without an election until refusing to acknowledge losing U.N.-backed polls in 1993.
In 1997, Hun Sen staged a bloody coup to maintain his grip on leadership, and international observers have questioned the fairness of Cambodia’s elections since.
In January, Hun Sen said he would remain in power until at least 2018, when Cambodians will return to the polls for the next general election, and that serving any longer would depend on the will of the people.
However, the strongman has previously vowed to run the country until he is 74.
Reported by Morm Moniroth for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.