Cambodia’s sham election might be Hun Sen’s last

Asia’s longest serving leader makes his own rules, in golf and politics. Now he’s preparing his sons to take over.

Jim Laurie and Hun Sen 1980-1689939673
Journalist Jim Laurie (left) with Cambodia's longtime Prime Minister Hun Sen on January 3,1980. Hun Sen was then foreign minister [Jim Laurie]

When I first met Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen, I didn’t have much hope for his future.

A seemingly shy, simple man appeared before me in January 1980 at the foreign ministry in Phnom Penh. He was then foreign minister, soon to be deputy prime minister.

A Khmer Rouge battalion commander, Hun Sen had lost an eye during the war. Defecting from the murderous Pol Pot regime (1975-1979) to the Vietnamese in June 1977, he received intensive tutoring from Hanoi’s communist leaders. Eighteen months later, Hanoi moved to oust Pol Pot and install Hun Sen as a key member of the new Khmer leadership.

I figured when Hanoi finally ended the occupation of Cambodia, as it did in 1989, Hun Sen would disappear along with the Vietnamese.

Well, he didn’t.

The Vietnamese trained Hun Sen well – in the art of maintaining single-party rule. Outmanoeuvring or suppressing every opposition political leader and outlawing every opposition party, Hun Sen used a Leninist Communist Party model to effectively build his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

When the country votes in national elections on July 23, it will win by a landslide – retaining the power it has held for more than 40 years.

But this election is different.

A dynasty is being put into place. If all goes to plan for Cambodia’s ruler, this will be his last election. A political succession should be cemented by the time the next election is mandated in 2028 and Hun Sen has celebrated his 76th birthday.

Cambodia is moving into a new era – one where the memories of the wars of the 1970s, the genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge, and the occupation of the Vietnamese are fast disappearing into distant history. Only 10 percent of this nation of 16 million are over the age of 50 with memories of the turbulent past.

Hun Sen has prepared his three sons to continue his rule. His youngest, 40-year-old Many, sits in the National Assembly with a prominent position among the emerging youth wing of the CPP. His middle son, Manith, has just been promoted to the upper ranks of the Cambodian army.

And his eldest son, Manet, has stepped down as head of the army and will enter the National Assembly next month. Hun Manet, 45, has been meticulously groomed, with the position of prime minister likely to open up for him soon.

Born the same year his father joined the Vietnamese to overthrow the Khmer Rouge, Manet has led a largely pampered life as his family, born into poverty, grew in power and wealth.

In May 1999, Manet received a Bachelor of Science degree, majoring in economics from the United States Military Academy at West Point. (To date only three Khmer have ever attended West Point.) In 2002, Manet continued his economics study at New York University, capping it off with a PhD from the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom in 2008.

He then returned home to move up the ranks of the military and receive the continued tutorage of his father.

But does Manet have the stomach for the cut-throat, winner-takes-all, politics Hun Sen has perfected over more than four decades?

One friend of Manet, who has known him for 20 years, told me if it weren’t for his father, Manet would be content as a teacher: a professor of economics at a top university.

So far Manet has made all the right moves. If in Maoist terms politics stems from the power of the gun, the army is safely secured.

Manet has worked to develop ties among those aged under 50 in the business community and steer the ageing CPP towards a younger membership.

Any thoughts, however, that Manet might emerge as either a forceful political or economic reformer, easing the ironclad controls of the CPP, I suspect, are largely pipe dreams.

Hun Sen leaves his son some good and a lot of bad issues with which to wrestle.

Cambodia’s economy continues to grow at an impressive rate.  It weathered the COVID-19 pandemic better than many countries and the World Bank predicts economic growth at 5.5 percent this year.

But growth is uneven at best.  Hun Sen sits atop a corrupt kleptocracy with the privileged urban elite reaping most of the benefits as the gap continues to widen between the rich and the majority rural poor.

Hun Sen will teach his son to adapt. Hun Sen calculated that defecting to the Vietnamese was the path to the winning side. As Cambodia moved into the 21st century, he then realised that bowing to his big northern neighbour, China, meant strong investment and support from a superpower that would never question him on issues of press freedom, human rights or notions of multi-party democracy.

And Hun Sen is not going away. He admires earlier long-serving Asian leaders at home and abroad. King Norodom Sihanouk stepped away from the monarchy to wrest colonial power away from the French and then ruled for another 17 years.

The far more sophisticated Lee Kuan Yew became senior minister and then minister mentor well into his son’s term as Singapore’s prime minister. Minister mentor is a title Hun Sen might well like to embrace. After mentoring his son into the prime minister’s job, Hun Sen will likely remain chair of the party.

In March 2001, a friend of mine managed to join Hun Sen for a round of golf.  The prime minister took up the sport in the 1990s and plays on a private course south of the capital.

Hun Sen complained he was putting on weight which was getting in the way of his golf swing. My friend watched the prime minister drive a ball into the rough. After a few fruitless minutes of searching, Hun Sen returned to a good position in the centre of the fairway and casually dropped a new ball. No penalty strokes.

He said nothing and neither did anyone else. In politics as in golf, the longest serving leader in Asia plays by rules he sets for himself to his consistent advantage.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.