Hun Manet says he’s fine with ‘authoritarian’ label, cites stability

The eldest son of former Prime Minister Hun Sen marked his first 100 days as Cambodia’s new leader.
By RFA Khmer
2023.12.01
Hun Manet says he’s fine with ‘authoritarian’ label, cites stability Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Manet inspects his government civil servants during the country’s 70th Independence Day, in Phnom Penh, Nov. 9, 2023.
(Heng Sinith/AP)

Just a little more than three months ago, Cambodia’s newly sworn-in National Assembly formalized what had been planned for many years.

Lawmakers voted to make 45-year-old Hun Manet the country’s new prime minister on Aug. 22. King Norodom Sihamoni swore him in at the Royal Palace shortly afterward.

How much the eldest son of a man who for decades ruled Cambodia – sometimes ruthlessly – would wield power on his own has been much discussed. 

On Thursday, Hun Manet marked his first 100 days with a warning message that sounded a lot like his father, Hun Sen, who first became prime minister in 1985.

“I won’t let people accuse the new government of being incapable of maintaining peace for the people, especially because that peace was difficult to attain with great devotion by our nation,” he said at a groundbreaking ceremony for a dam in Koh Kong province.

It’s better for critics to say he’s an authoritarian leader than for people to think he’s incapable of leading the country, he said. 

Such a perception of weakness could plunge Cambodia back into civil war, he said – a reminder of his father’s efforts in the 1990s to bring the remaining Khmer Rouge holdouts under government control.

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Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Manet speaks during the inauguration ceremony for the official launch of the new Siem Reap-Angkor International Airport in Siem Reap province on Nov. 16, 2023. (Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP)

Hun Sen, 71, resigned as prime minister in August but retains influence as president of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party. He also recently became president of the Senate. 

At a Nov. 23 news conference, government spokesman Pen Bona noted that peace and order have been maintained following the August power transfer.

David Hutt, a research fellow at the Central European Institute of Asian Studies in Prague and a commentary writer for RFA, said this week that “political instability” doesn’t appear to be a factor under Hun Manet.

“He has shown that his administration won’t be worse than his father’s, which isn’t saying much,” he said. “His power appears secure and there’s no sign of internal displeasure about his succession.” 

‘People are over-indebted’

For years, opposition leaders have criticized the CPP for not addressing government corruption and income inequality.

“The pressing issues are that our people are over-indebted and their properties are subject to being seized as they are unable to generate enough income to repay their debts and interest,” said Son Chhay, the deputy president of the opposition Candlelight Party. 

“Hundreds of thousands of our migrant workers go to work in neighboring countries without proper documentation,” he said. “This is an issue that has caused such difficulties for our citizens. Yet he has failed to do anything about it.”

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Cambodian migrant construction workers leave a building site in downtown Bangkok on Dec. 12, 2016. “Hundreds of thousands of our migrant workers go to work in neighboring countries without proper documentation,” says Son Chhay, the deputy president of the opposition Candlelight Party. (Dake Kang/AP)

Shortly after taking office, Hun Manet unveiled a 22-page strategy memo outlining the government’s plans for increasing employment, reducing poverty and promoting good governance. 

The goal is to make Cambodia an upper middle-income country by 2030 and a high-income one by 2050, he said. 

In September, he addressed the U.N. General Assembly in New York, insisting that July’s general election was free and fair and “credible and just,” even though the Candlelight Party wasn’t allowed to compete.

He also appeared to address U.S. claims and satellite imagery that may show that China is building a military base in the port of Sihanoukville.

In October, he traveled to Beijing to attend China’s Belt and Road Initiative conference – his second trip to the Chinese capital in 2023. Earlier this year, he and Hun Sen met with President Xi Jinping during an official visit.

And in November, he presided over the annual Government-Private Sector Forum in Phnom Penh, where he announced initiatives aimed at encouraging more foreign investment in property. He also urged microfinance companies to make it easier for homeowners to refinance delinquent mortgages.

‘Backseat driver’

But last week, a man who criticized the ruling CPP on Facebook over its inability to prevent illegal immigration from Vietnam and drug use was sentenced to three years in prison – evidence that the government’s longtime practice of going after critics will continue.

“No one should be expecting any political reform or opening up democratically,” Hutt said. “What will be interesting to watch is how much of a hostage he will be to the private sector, especially the powerful tycoons.”

Pen Bona told reporters that three months “isn’t a long period” to judge a new prime minister.

He pointed toward plans to achieve universal healthcare for all Cambodians, to provide free technical training to 1.5 million Cambodians from poor backgrounds and to put in place a national authority for settling civil disputes outside of the backlogged court system.

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Cambodian opposition figure Sam Rainsy speaks during a press freedom event in Jakarta, Indonesia, May 19, 2023. Rainsy says “There is no evidence that Hun Manet is capable of governing without his father as a backseat driver.” (Ajeng Dinar Ulfiana/Reuters)

But exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy wrote in The Diplomat on Wednesday that “it’s useless to look for signs of positive change under a ‘new regime’ when a transfer of power has not in fact taken place.”

“There is no evidence that Hun Manet is capable of governing without his father as a backseat driver,” he said.

On Facebook, he wrote that Hun Manet’s first 100 days shouldn’t be marked as a celebration, but rather as a “mourning.” 

“There are more political prisoners, more threats, and more authoritarian rules,” he wrote.

At the Koh Kong groundbreaking, Hun Manet seemed to publicly respond to those comments. 

“Whatever such mourning is, you hold it alone,” he said. “Millions of our people have just enjoyed celebrating the Water Festival. Are they mourning or celebrating?”

Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Edited by Matt Reed and Malcolm Foster.

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