By selecting their children to run in upcoming elections, Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen and other government leaders may be widening the gap between the rich and powerful and the grass-root members in the country's ruling party, observers and rights groups say.
Cheam Yeap, a senior member of the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), confirmed this week that Hun Sen's youngest son, 30-year-old Hun Many, and his son-in-law, Dy Vichea, a senior police officer in the Interior Ministry, will run for parliament in the July general election.
There have been unconfirmed reports that Hun Sen's eldest son Hun Manet, 35, the chief of the ministry of defense's anti-terrorism unit as well as the deputy chief of Hun Sen's personal bodyguard unit, and his third son, Hun Manith, 31, an army colonel and deputy head of a powerful military intelligence unit, will also run in the polls.
The candidacies of Hun Many, who is currently an official in his father's cabinet, and Dy Vichea are expected to add to speculation that Hun Sen is setting the stage for his children to succeed him and establish a political dynasty, observers said.
The sons of several other senior CPP officials, including those of Deputy Prime Minister Sok An and Interior Minister Sar Kheng, have also been picked to stand in the general elections in July, Cheam Yeap said.
Other candidates include the sons of CPP Senate first Deputy President Say Chhum and CPP Supreme Court President Dith Munthy.
Ou Virak, the president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said that nominating only the rich and powerful children within the CPP to become lawmakers would discourage other CPP members' children sidelined from the polls.
"Children of other CPP leaders will think they don't have any chance like those of the rich and powerful," he told RFA's Khmer Service.
Ou Virak believes that Hun Sen, prime minister since 1985 and Southeast Asia's longest serving government leader, is paving the way for his oldest son Hun Manet, currently a two-star general, to replace him in the future.
"Hun Manet is holding a very crucial position in the military. I think during Hun Sen's regime, the military will play an important role in controlling the country. I think this is what Hun Sen is thinking," Ou Virak said.
Hun Sen, who has vowed to remain in power until he is 90, believes in the military controlling the country, he said.
Even though the powerful prime minister's youngest son is the only one among his sons to be confirmed running in the elections, Hun Sen wants Hun Manet to succeed him, Ou Virak said.
Human rights abuses
The Hun Sen government has been accused of blatant human rights abuses and widespread corruption.
Opposition political party figures, critics of the government, and those resisting CPP-backed abuses, such as land-grabbing, have been increasingly subjected in recent years to groundless prosecutions, judicial investigations, and unfair trials leading to wrongful convictions and prison sentences, the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said in a recent report.
Global graft watchdog Transparency International considers Cambodia one of the most corrupt countries in the world.
Political analyst Lao Mong Hay said the move to field Hun Many, who has been actively running the CPP-linked Voluntary Youth Movement, as an election candidate is aimed at creating a political dynasty, Agence France-Presse reported.
The analyst said that one of Hun Sen's sons could succeed him.
"For years, he has prepared his children to join in politics," he said.
Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith played down the speculation, saying the CPP was in "a state of rejuvenating its ranks after years of preparation".
Cheam Yeap, who is a member of the CPP's permanent committee, said the party has a new policy of fielding at least two younger candidates to run in each province for the national elections, according to the local The Cambodia Daily newspaper.
“These are the children of CPP leaders, they are really talented and hold at least a master’s degree,” said Yeap, whose son is also among the party's candidates in the elections.
Cheam Yeap also said that just 10 of CPP's 90 lawmakers have been ordered to retire. Not on the retirement list however are veteran parliamentarians Finance Minister Keat Chhon, 79, and Foreign Minister Hor Namhong, 77.
The CPP controls 90 of the 123 seats in the lower house of parliament after a landslide victory in 2008.
The National Rescue Party, an opposition coalition formed in 2012, is gearing up to challenge the CPP, but its leader Sam Rainsy is in exile and the government has threatened to jail him if he returns.
Sam Rainsy, who is living in France, was convicted of offenses linked to a protest over border demarcation with Vietnam in a case he says is politically motivated. He faces 12 years in prison.
But he is confident of returning to participate in the July elections, saying international pressure on Hun Sen over the vote's legitimacy if he cannot stand in elections could convince the authorities to allow him back to the country.
Sam Rainsy said that the opposition could give the CPP a run for its money following the recent merger between his erstwhile Sam Rainsy Party and another leading group, the Human Rights Party.
"Actually, as president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party representing the united democratic opposition, I am the only serious challenger to Mr. Hun Sen for premiership," Sam Rainsy said.
Reported by RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.