The making of Hun Manet

Is the son with a Ph.D. in economics ready to take over for his strongman father?
Jack Adamović Davies for RFA Investigative
The making of Hun Manet Hun Manet and his wife, Pich Chanmony, gesture during a campaign rally in Phnom Penh on July 21, 2023.
Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP

Cambodia’s prime minister, Hun Sen, who is stepping down later this month after four decades in power, has often suggested he is the reincarnation of a 16th century king. 

And he occasionally imbues his successor, Hun Manet, with similarly mythical powers. In public speeches and to his biographers, Hun Sen has insisted that blinding light shot out from a centuries-old Banyan tree upon his eldest son’s birth.

“Five hundred people saw the light. That was when Manet was born,” he told the authors of Strongman: The Extraordinary Life of Hun Sen in December 1997. 

The anecdote, with its mythic overtones, seems calculated to portray Hun Manet as destined for the same kingly greatness as his father. But, speaking just four months after he ousted his coalition partners in a bloody coup, Hun Sen went on to tell the biographers that not only did he not want his son to walk the same political tightrope as he had, he did not think then-20-year-old Hun Manet would be well suited to it.

“I would like to be the last member of my family who was involved in politics,” Hun Sen is quoted as saying in Strongman. “I would rather see [Manet] working as an assistant to a politician, helping in national reconstruction, and not become a politician himself. … It seems he is interested in study, in research, in making recommendations rather than doing things himself.”

Hun Manet was appointed prime minister by royal decree on Monday and is poised to be sworn in on Aug. 22, following last month’s one-sided election. With the 45-year-old now taking the helm, many Cambodians are wondering what the rare moment of change will mean for the country. He is a trained economist and an experienced general. But as a politician he remains a cipher; and only time will tell whether he has his father’s autocratic tendencies. 

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen [left] stands with his son, Hun Manet, after graduation ceremonies at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, in 1999. Credit: Reuters

‘An innocent guy’

Those who knew Hun Manet as a young man offer accounts not dissimilar to Hun Sen's. They recall a humble and conscientious youth, mild-mannered almost to the point of timidity and determined to carve out a career for himself in development economics.

Hun Manet enrolled at West Point military academy in 1995, the first Cambodian ever to have done so, and one of fewer than 10 non-U.S. students in a class of more than 900. He struggled initially with communicating in English and was bewildered by cultural phenomena such as hazing, he told his father’s biographers in 2003.

Kevin James, who roomed with Hun Manet for two years, described him as a “tolerant individual who, at the time anyway, didn’t have any presumptions about any one person being different from any other.”

They got on so well their first year that they elected to bunk together again in their second, James told RFA.

“I had zero complaints about living with Manet. He was friendly, and a kind and considerate roommate. He didn’t cause any issues, and he tolerated my smoking in the room,” recalled James, who is now a lieutenant colonel in the 101st Airborne Division. “He was an innocent guy with no airs, and this is coming from a guy from rural Pennsylvania – I was occasionally shocked at how innocent he was.”

Having gained a bachelor’s degree in economics, Hun Manet continued his studies at New York University. There, he researched whether Cambodia would benefit from land reform for his 2001 master’s thesis. Back home, meanwhile, his father was beginning to parcel out the country to cronies and foreign investors in the form of economic land concessions. By 2014, according to a lawsuit, such ELCs had displaced 6% of the Cambodian population.

As his father’s government continued to enrich its powerful tycoon class at the expense of the poorest, Hun Manet appeared increasingly interested in learning how the world’s worst off can be lifted out of poverty. He took an internship with the World Bank, during which time he was posted to the Congo, according to a Facebook post by Hun Sen. Afterwards, he moved to the United Kingdom, where he undertook a doctorate at Bristol University. 

“He was an able student, always polite and respectful, and hard-working,” his Ph.D. supervisor, Jonathan Temple, told RFA last year, adding that he expressed a desire to work in development economics. “I did not learn about his family background until his studies were well advanced.”

Hun Sen’s family, including Hun Manet [back, fourth from right] and his wife, Pich Chanmony [back, fifth from right], pose during a visit by the ousted Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and former Thai Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat in Nov. 2009. Credit: Reuters

Family values

If his studies brought Hun Manet geographically and perhaps intellectually far from his family, there was little sign that he left their orbit.  

In his second year at N.Y.U., Hun Manet and his then-teenage siblings spent $550,000 on a four-bedroom house in New York’s Long Island suburb, despite the fact that all were unemployed and their father’s official salary was just $12,000 a year. (In the year 2000 when the purchase took place, the house equaled 1,600 times the average annual Cambodian salary.)

In 2006 Hun Manet married Pich Chanmony, the well-connected daughter of a Labor Ministry secretary of state and minister attached to the prime minister. They would go on to have three children. As with his four siblings, whose spouses are the scions of powerful families, Hun Manet’s marriage reflected a growing dynasty intertwining business, politics and personal life. 

In November 2011, Pich Chanmony and the son of tycoon Choeung Sopheap (whose husband is ruling-party senator Lau Ming Kan) incorporated Phnom Penh Toll Way Co. Ltd. Soon after, the company won the $10.5 million contract to renovate and then collect tolls on Veng Sreng Boulevard. 

A month after toll collection started in November 2015, Hun Sen had announced that the government would buy the company out. Today, Pich Chanmony chairs four companies and is on the board of another six, according to the Commerce Ministry registry. 

Cambodian soldiers stand guard at Preah Vihear temple in Preah Vihear province, in 2008. Credit: Chor Sokunthea/Reuters

The battle for Preah Vihear

Any ivory tower dreams Hun Manet might have harbored dissipated shortly after he left Bristol in February 2008. A long-running border dispute with Thailand over the Preah Vihear temple complex boiled over into live fighting in June of the same year. 

The clashes were well timed for Hun Sen, who used them to drum up nationalistic support ahead of the July elections. He also took the opportunity to put his son’s West Point education to the test, placing him in charge of Cambodian forces around the temples, and sending him back when tensions flared again in 2011.

The world took notice. Robert Willard, the U.S. Navy admiral in charge of American forces in the Pacific at the time, told a U.S. congressional committee that by sending Hun Manet to Preah Vihear, Hun Sen appeared to be grooming him as his “heir apparent.”

“This conflict builds Hun Manet’s credentials as a military leader and hero who defended national sovereignty against an external threat,” Willard told the committee.

The boy who would be ‘king’

In the following years, Hun Sen’s sons and sons-in-law took on greater roles in the government and military while his daughters became business magnates, but it was increasingly clear that Hun Manet was indeed being positioned for the top job. 

By 2015, the topic was the focus of a rare interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, with signs that the young then-lieutenant general was growing more excited by the prospect.  

After spending most of the conversation quietly trotting out the Cambodian People’s Party line about the dangers of upending the status quo, Hun Manet's mask slipped toward the end. The interviewer first asked him how long his father planned to stick around. A smile broke across his face, and laughing, he chided the interviewer: “Cambodia is a democracy; as long as the people want him to.” 

His smile grew larger when she asked, “If the people want you to, you would be prime minister?” 

“Not no, not yes,” he said.

Tea Banh [left], minister of National Defence, places the insignia of a four-star general on the shoulder of Hun Manet, commander of the Royal Cambodian Army, during a promotion ceremony at the Ministry of Defense in Phnom Penh on April 20, 2023. Credit: Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP

As speculation around Hun Manet’s future role mounted, he received promotion after promotion, moving rapidly up the military ranks. He spoke rarely with reporters and closely guarded his public image. While other members of his family today have a robust social media presence, showing off expensive watches and private jets, Hun Manet maintains only professional accounts and keeps his children mostly hidden from view. (Requests to Hun Manet for an interview went unanswered.) 

At times, he has shown little tolerance of criticism. In 2016, he complained to the press that he had been met with protests by the Cambodian diaspora wherever he went in Australia.

“Why are they looking down on me, causing divisions and conflicts?” he asked reporters. 

Ou Virak, president of the Phnom Penh think tank Future Forum, said past conversations with Hun Manet left him with the impression that the future premier was sincerely interested in tackling corruption and encouraging development. But along with the premiership, Hun Sen has also bequeathed his son a country whose power structures were forged in violent struggle and are precariously interlocked. Given such an entrenched political system, anything that upsets them could be disastrous for Hun Manet personally.

“At his stage, politics is still a zero-sum game to him, it could be dangerous for his family [to accept change],” he noted. 

Additional reporting by RFA Khmer's Keo Sovannarith. Edited by Abby Seiff



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Samy Inn
Sep 09, 2023 04:23 PM

Khmer Rouge communist government had Pol Pot (his real name is Ieng Sary) as Defense Minister. Prime Minister of Khmer Rouge communist government had Khiev Samphan who had Doctor degree in economics from France.
Both of them killed their own Cambodians mostly educated Khmers, destroyed all infrastructure ...
Be aware Doctor degree person are not always right to govern the country.