Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen said Monday he is grooming his eldest son Hun Manet to take over leadership of the country but has no plans to step down for another decade, confirming long-held suspicions that the strongman intends to establish a dynasty.
Speaking during an inspection of a construction site for the new Phnom Penh International Airport in Kandal province’s Kandal Stoeung district, Hun Sen also vowed that his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) would rule the country for as long as a century.
“Hun Manet is not the only candidate [for Prime Minister] within the CPP—there are a lot of candidates,” he said.
“Yet, as his father, I have to support my son and train him so that he is capable [for this position]. If he cannot be like his father, at least his capacity should match that of his father by 80 or 90 percent.”
But Hun Sen acknowledged that whether Hun Manet, 43, ultimately becomes prime minister or not “rests with voters.”
“First, within the party—whether it can accept his candidacy or not—and secondly, he needs to be elected by the people,” he said.
Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the country’s main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in November 2017 over its involvement in an alleged plot to topple the government.
The move to ban the CNRP was part of a wider crackdown by Hun Sen on the political opposition, NGOs, and the independent media that paved the way for the CPP to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election, which was widely considered neither free nor fair.
On Monday, Hun Sen lavished praise on himself as an “outstanding leader” who had governed Cambodia for three decades. He said no one else is currently capable of holding his position and that he plans to stay in power for at least 10 more years.
Meanwhile, the CPP has set out its long-term goals for governing the country, which he said was illustrated by the recent construction of the party’s U.S. $40 million headquarters. He characterized the new building as “an investment for the next 50 to 100 years.”
In a not-so-subtle jab at the CNRP, he noted that “some who take refuge abroad” have said via social media that he was frustrated over being unable to transfer power to Hun Manet during a recent session of the National Assembly. Many of the opposition’s top brass are living in self-imposed exile to avoid what they say are politically motivated arrests and convictions.
“Who is capable of replacing me these days,” he questioned, daring any would-be challenger to “show your face!”
“There are none within the CPP. Those of you [who want to do so] will perhaps have to wait for your next life, as long as Hun Sen is here.”
As CPP president, Hun Sen earlier this month appointed Hun Manet to the position of the party’s central youth leader. He is already a member of the CPP’s standing committee along with 34 other party veterans.
Following the appointment, the CPP promoted 23 younger officials—all of whom are the children of the party’s senior leaders and have close ties to Hun Manet—as members of its Youth Standing Committee.
Despite his age, Hun Manet is a three-star general who holds the positions of deputy commander-general of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF), army commander, commander of the anti-terrorism special forces, and deputy commander of bodyguards.
Speaking to RFA’s Khmer Service on Monday, CNRP vice president Eng Chhay Eang said Hun Sen is getting older and can’t afford to wait a decade before transferring power to his son.
“If we look at the situation that he is preparing for Hun Manet, it is unlikely to be delayed for 10 more years,” he said.
“It will probably happen in the next mandate because Hun Sen knows he is already 69 years old. He is no longer young and will surely face health problems. That is why he will make an all-out effort to transfer power to Hun Manet as soon as possible.”
According to Eng Chhay Eang, Hun Sen has only been able to prolong his power through the serious violation of human rights, including the dissolution of the CNRP ahead of the 2018 national election.
“Hun Sen maintains his power dishonestly—no person with integrity would have done what he did for so many years,” he said.
“Instead, he or she would have done better at governing the country so that it could enjoy progress like the world’s developed nations.”
Kien Punlork, secretary-general of the Federation of Cambodian Intellectuals and Students said Hun Sen has held power for so long because he has used the armed forces and employed a divide-and-conquer strategy to “obliterate” the opposition.
He also questioned Hun Sen’s claims that he alone is worthy of wielding power in Cambodia.
“We have a lot of people who are capable of doing so, but the question is whether [Hun Sen] will agree to provide opportunities for them to equally take part in the election,” he said.
“The CPP is not short of people who are capable [of being prime minister], but they haven’t been given the chance to stand as a candidate.”
Also on Monday, Hun Sen said a shipment of 290 Chinese-made military trucks that has prompted anger as a waste of resources and fears they might be used to crackdown on civilians, cost nearly U.S. $20 million and was provided by anonymous individual donors for the good of the nation.
He said he also plans to purchase more trucks in the future and cursed critics of the transaction, which raised fears among Cambodians wary of Hun Sen and of China’s influence in the country.
“Had you not been beasts, you would have been delighted to see [the purchase] of these trucks, which will be used to better equip our armed forces,” he said.
“Not only will it help protect the nation, but also it will help transport civilians and troops who are in need of emergency rescue. Such trucks are always needed.”
Last week, during their unveiling, Hun Manet denied reports that the trucks were a gift from the Chinese government. Beijing’s political support is seen by wary Cambodians as entrenching Hun Sen’s authoritarian policies while deepening Chinese influence.
He said the vehicles, ordered a year earlier, would be used during natural disasters such as floods and wildfires and to defend Cambodia’s interests in a border dispute with Vietnam that dates back to end of French colonial rule in the 1950s.
Critics have suggested the trucks will be used to help the government more efficiently subjugate the Cambodian people as part of an ongoing crackdown that still sees opposition activists arrested every week.
Finland-based political commentator Kim Sok questioned why Hun Sen and his son are so desperate to legitimize the purchase.
“If it is about helping our people or about thinking of the well-being of our citizens to assist in their transport, the purchasing scheme should have been made known to public from the very beginning of the process, when they started collecting the donations,” he said, adding that the identities of the donors should also have been reported.
“He tried to explain it when he could no longer hide … that the trucks will be used to transport the troops for the suppression of the people. This clarification is because [Hun Sen] is concerned that the people are angered and may stand up against his power sooner than later.”
RFA reported in late July 2019 that Hun Sen had allocated U.S. $40 million to purchase unspecified arms from China, on top of U.S. $290 million it had already spent on military purchases from Beijing.
The two countries staged joint military exercises over the final two weeks of March, when China was in the thick of its response to the coronavirus outbreak that originated in Wuhan city, in its central Hubei province.
With Cambodia isolated from Western trade partners since the crackdown on the opposition, Beijing has offered its full support for Hun Sen’s government. In turn, Cambodia has increasingly backed Chinese positions on international issues, including in disputes in the South China Sea.
Chinese investment has flowed into Cambodian real estate, agriculture, and entertainment, but Cambodians regularly chafe at what they say are unscrupulous business practices and coarse behavior by Chinese residents, and worry that their country is increasingly bending to Beijing’s will.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.