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Cambodia’s Hun Manet: The Chosen Successor to Asia’s Longest-Serving Prime Minister

SINGAPORE: The ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) declared a landslide victory in a one-sided election on Sunday (Jul 23), clearing the path for a historic leadership transition and the end of the reign of one of the world’s longest-serving prime ministers.

The seventh election since the United Nations first sponsored polls in 1993 was effectively a one-horse race, with Prime Minister Hun Sen’s CPP, a political behemoth with a vast war chest, facing no viable opponent after a ruthless, years-long crackdown that has seen hundreds of its rivals flee into exile.

The CPP was leading in ballot counting late on Sunday, with a turnout of 84 per cent, according to the election committee, with 8.1 million people voting in a lopsided contest between the CPP and 17 mostly obscure parties.

Self-styled strongman Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia for 38 years, had brushed off Western concerns about the election’s credibility, determined to prevent any obstacle in his carefully calibrated transition to his anointed successor and eldest son, Hun Manet.

No time frame had been given for the handover until last Thursday, when Hun Sen, 70, signalled that Western-educated Hun Manet “could be” prime minister next month.

A National Assembly seat would make him eligible, if backed by the house. Party spokesperson Sok Eysan said it was “very clear” that Hun Manet had won a seat.

Hun Manet, however, has given no clues over his vision for Cambodia and its 16 million people.

So who is the military general, and will his father fade into the background after the leadership transition?

Here is what we know so far.

Who is Hun Manet and how will he govern Cambodia?

Hun Manet, 45, made his debut in Sunday’s election and needed to win a legislative seat to be eligible for the role of prime minister.

The election gave him an opportunity to earn legitimacy with the public and he had been expected to take over sometime during the five-year term, with his father retaining influence by becoming CPP chief in the interim.

A graduate of the West Point military academy in the United States, Hun Manet has risen quickly through the ranks of Cambodia’s armed forces and has served as head of counterterrorism, deputy chief of his father’s bodyguard unit, army chief and deputy military commander.

Hun Manet is also highly educated, with a master’s degree from New York University and a doctorate from Britain’s Bristol University, both in economics, in stark contrast to his father, who has no formal education.

He has kept a low international profile and has rarely given interviews, although he posts frequently on Facebook and Telegram like his father.

Speaking briefly to the media after casting his vote on Sunday, Hun Manet said: “Sorry. I just come to vote, not make any statement. Sorry, no comment. Thank you.”

The transition will be closely watched abroad to see whether Hun Manet’s experiences with British and American education and democracy will lead to a shift in the status quo and improve Cambodia’s testy relationship with the West.

“A Cambodia led by Hun Manet might very well be a stronger US ally, but the US-Cambodia relationship can only thrive if it is built on strong fundamentals of common benefit and mutual respect,” said John Bradford, a senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

“US diplomats should focus on these things.”

At the top of Washington’s concerns is China’s involvement in construction at Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base, which could give Beijing a strategically important military outpost on the Gulf of Thailand.

Ground was broken last year on the Ream project, and satellite imagery of the ongoing construction from Planet Labs PBC taken about a month ago and analysed by the Associated Press shows a jetty now large enough to accommodate a naval destroyer, if the water is deep enough.

Regionally, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which Cambodia chaired last year, has criticised Phnom Penh for undermining its unity in disputes with China over South China Sea territorial claims.

Hun Manet becoming prime minister might not bring about any change at all, however, said Bradford, who noted that educational and personal background do not necessarily translate into leadership style or political stance.

“We have a dictator in North Korea who went to school in Switzerland,” he said. “His choices don’t exactly reflect Swiss values.”

Ou Virak, president of Phnom Penh’s Future Forum think-tank, said that while “generational change” to Cambodia’s leadership could begin a “honeymoon period” for international diplomacy, people will be disappointed if they expect a sharp pivot away from China.

“China is still Cambodia’s main backer, Cambodia’s main superpower partner,” he said.

“So I think any shift to the West will be limited, because you can’t alienate your main supporter.”

Source : CNA