Cambodia's Prime Minister-designate Hun Manet (L) speaks with a bodyguard as he attends a parliamentary meeting at the National Assembly building in Phnom Penh on Aug 22, 2023. Cambodia’s parliament on Aug 22 elected long-time ruler Hun Sen’s eldest son as the country’s new prime minister, sealing a dynastic handover of power after last month’s one-sided election. (Photo: AFP)
Hun Manet — a 45-year-old West Point graduate — was named prime minister of Cambodia on Aug. 22 completing a carefully orchestrated ‘generational’ transfer of power by his father Hun Sen, who has ruled this country for four decades.
His ascension to the top job was delivered through a vote of confidence in parliament where the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won 120 out of 125 seats contested at the July 23 national elections, which were derided by Western countries and human rights groups.
Also approved was Hun Manet’s cabinet line-up, consisting mainly of the children of senior ministers who served his father and like Hun Sen passed their portfolios to their offspring amid claims by the ruling elites their children were best suited to run the country.
But the issues confronting the new government are many.
A landslide victory at the polls was made possible by the disqualification of the main opposition Candlelight Party (CLP) after the National Election Committee (NEC) ruled that party officials had failed to lodge the correct paperwork when registering for the ballot.
In response, the United States and European Union are mulling sanctions amid an erosion of democratic standards, the culmination of a crackdown that resulted in the closure of independent media and NGOs and the jailing of dissidents, opposition politicians and their supporters.
Washington has also been angered by a Beijing-funded reconstruction of the Ream Naval Base on the south coast which the US State Department has labeled China’s second foreign military base after Djibouti. Its use, analysts say, could upset the shifting power balances in the Indo-Pacific.
Compounding that problem is Cambodia’s relationship with China — its chief ally and financial benefactor. Half of ASEAN — Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei — have overlapping territorial claims with China in the South China Sea.
“For more than a decade Cambodia has acted as a Chinese proxy within ASEAN, stymying the bloc’s ability to find any resolutions to the disputes which remains a military hotspot,” said one regional analyst who declined to be named.
“Then there’s human trafficking, which emerged during the Covid-19 pandemic and has been widely blamed on organized criminal syndicates. The Cambodians have tried to shut down the traffickers but there’s tens of thousands of victims and most are from within ASEAN.”
Problems at home
Cambodia’s economy is struggling to recover from the pandemic, in part due to global circumstances like inflation and the war in Ukraine and because the much touted return of Chinese investors has to date failed to materialize.
As one diplomat said: “There’s too many negative headlines coming out of Cambodia and that’s frightening off investors — whether Chinese, Western or from within ASEAN — and also the tourists which it desperately needs.”
The prospect of further sanctions will not help Cambodia’s economic prospects. GDP forecasts have been lowered to about five percent and the number of people living below the poverty line has risen sharply due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
In a bid to broaden economic prospects Hun Sen has promoted trade with regional countries, as far afield as The Maldives, and through ASEAN Cambodia has joined the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.
It is expected to leave the ranks of Least Developed Countries by 2027.
However, joining the ranks of middle income countries will result in a loss of trade preferences and in increased interest rates on concessional loans normally granted to aid-dependent countries.
Meanwhile, the arrests and court appearances of dissidents and opposition politicians continued in the month since the one-sided national elections were held.
On Aug. 15, the Kong Kong Provincial Court convicted 10 land activists of incitement to commit serious social disorder and sentenced them to one year in prison and ordered to pay damages to the tycoon Heng Huy, who was initially accused of land grabbing in Cambodia’s southwest.
“I am deeply saddened that the court believed Heng Huy, as hundreds of families lost their land because of Heng Huy’s encroachment,” said Tang Nim, daughter of activist Det Huor.
She told CambojaNews: “When we lose our land or lose something unjustly, are we not allowed to protest? Are we not allowed to speak? Is there a law that forbids it?”
A day earlier the Phnom Penh Municipal Court ended the first day of the trial of CLP Vice President Thach Setha, charged with writing bad checks, ahead of schedule because “the defendant does not look to be in good health”.
In separate cases, local media reported police arrested a garment worker, 35-year-old Phi Ouk, for allegedly insulting the honor and dignity of Hun Manet on TikTok. She was arrested in connection for causing chaos, serious damage to social security and insulting public officials.
A 30 year-old chef was also charged after police said he admitted to posting an online video with the aim of inciting to hurt the country’s leadership and causing unrest.
Chances of Change
Some diplomats and human rights activists suggested Hun Manet’s background — he also holds a PhD from the University of Bristol — and a need to diversify foreign investment might steer the new prime minister closer to the West and improve ties with the US.
That would be helped by the release of political prisoners, including former opposition leader Kem Sokha, the American-Khmer lawyer Theary Seng and trade unionist Chhim Sithar.
But that’s unlikely given the foreign policy course chartered by his father.
Hun Manet met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Phnom Penh two weeks ago when he re-assured Beijing that their tight relationship would not change and he is slated to make two visits to China in September and October to "further solidify" the relationship.
Carl Thayer, emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia recently said: “If Hun Sen is 90 percent pro-China, then Hun Manet might be around 85 percent.”
Hun Sen will remain an overarching figure in Cambodian politics. He will maintain his positions as president of the CPP and in the politburo from where he can exert his influence over the CPP, which has ruled since a Vietnamese invasion ousted the Khmer Rouge in 1979.
He has also announced his intention to stand as president of the Senate when elections are held in February next year and said he’d like to see his grandson become prime minister in the 2030s.
“At home and abroad Hun Manet has his work cut for him,” said a diplomat who declined to be named. “But with his father holding high office in the CPP, the politburo and the Senate, not much is expected to change.”