Domestic Affairs

Hun Sen will rule but not reign in Cambodia

In his memorable evocation of the role of a constitutional monarch, the 19th-century historian Thomas Macaulay intoned that a sovereign reigns but does not rule. After Hun Sen resigns as Cambodia’s prime minister and hands over the position to his elde…

In his memorable evocation of the role of a constitutional monarch, the 19th-century historian Thomas Macaulay intoned that a sovereign reigns but does not rule. After Hun Sen resigns as Cambodia’s prime minister and hands over the position to his eldest son, the self-styled “peasant king” will achieve the opposite: he will rule but not reign.

Hun Sen has insinuated that he will hand over the premiership to Hun Manet, a former military chief and four-star general, sometime next month. The long-anticipated power transfer is part of a vast generational succession in the ruling party.

According to leaked official lists seen by this writer and now circulating among political observers, the reshuffle will see almost the entire cabinet replaced by younger officials, many of whom are the children or relatives of other aging party grandees. Interior Minister Sar Kheng and Defence Minister Tea Banh are slated to hand over their offices to their sons, too, according to the lists, on which the government has yet to comment.

Yet, Hun Sen won’t quit politics. He has confirmed he will stay on as president of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), which clinched a landslide victory at Sunday’s general election, an expected outcome after it had disqualified its only viable opponent from competing.

From that position, Hun Sen will still dictate party policy and appointees. It now has more authority to hire and fire after the National Assembly’s authority to censure ministers was weakened by constitutional changes last year. He will likely keep his other titles.

He was, for instance, made honorary president of a recently-created forum of the country’s business tycoons. One imagines he will still accompany Manet on visits to Beijing, Cambodia’s main benefactor.

It’s possible that Hun Sen will also create a new cabinet post for himself (perhaps “Mentor Minister”) or seek to take the presidency of the National Assembly or Senate, the latter of which will allow him to be acting head of state when the King is out of the country, which he frequently is. Doing so would give him additional powers. It would also prolong his diplomatic immunity. Last year, the French government invoked that immunity to prevent a French court from summoning him to a case involving a 1997 grenade attack on opposition figure Sam Rainsy, which Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit is accused of conducting.

All in the clan

Hun Sen has carved out a “personalist” rule for his family, now the most important political clan. Hun Many, his youngest son, is expected to become the next Minister of Civil Service, in charge of the sprawling bureaucracy. Hun Manith, another son, will remain as military intelligence chief and was recently made a deputy army commander. Mao Sophan, a close Hun Sen loyalist and head of Brigade 70, has taken over as army chief from Manet. Vongsey Vissoth, one of Hun Sen’s closest assistants, is tipped to become the next head of the Council of Ministers, so in charge of cabinet affairs. Neth Savoeun, the national police chief, who is married to Hun Sen’s niece, is expected to become a deputy prime minister. Hun Sen’s daughters control a vast media and business empire.

In many ways, Hun Sen will depart the premiership after 38 years as the “strongman” he purports to be. His family’s power is secure. He has acolytes in important government and military posts. His narrative that only the CPP (read: his family) can ensure peace and stability is often employed for cynical reasons but there is no doubt that it appeals to many Cambodian voters, especially those old enough to remember the genocide Khmer Rouge era. Something akin to “Hun Sen Thought” could become official dogma. His party maintains dominance of the National Assembly, winning all but five seats at last weekend’s election, according to unofficial results.

The opposition movement that traces a lineage back to the 1990s looks all but a spent force. The economy is in okay-ish health, although structural debts in the property market might bite soon. Cambodia is a trusted, “ironclad” friend of Beijing’s, while Western democracies seem to have lost interest in trying to roll back the tide of authoritarianism.

Democratic states will likely see an inchoate Manet administration as one they can work with, although their belief that he will be more democratic and tolerant is a result of them predicting his actions by his reputation as a Western-educated, somewhat cosmopolitan figure.

Yet, power can be tenuous. And rarely do dynastic successions happen as smoothly as imagined in dictatorships. Hun Sen may prove history wrong. With him still in charge behind the scenes, no one will move against his son. But one might question why he felt the need for his eldest son to succeed him. Maybe it speaks to his obsession with framing himself as the “peasant king” Sdach Kan, a 16th-century usurper. Maybe it is because he sees a dearth of other competent hands to take over the premiership.

More probable, Hun Sen wants to keep Cambodian politics a family business because that’s the only way to protect his family. Cambodian politics is a complex web of patronage networks, resembling a past-century court where the Hun family sits at the top and the other baron families (the Tea’s, the Sar’s, the Sok’s) accept the hierarchy but only if they get their cut of the spoils.

Family fiefdoms

The important families have their own ministerial and provincial fiefdoms, in which they can give lucrative state contracts and concessions to their favorites and enrich themselves. All that requires careful handling. If the equilibrium is disrupted, even slightly, if one family feels its interests are threatened, that destabilizes the entire system.

On the one hand, the settlement Hun Sen has fleshed out, in which children of party grandees will now inherit their parents’ positions and patronage networks, ensures continuity. On the other hand, it’s a sign of the inherent weakness of the system.

A Hun had to inherit the prime ministership to ensure the family’s interests remained intact. A party-wide inheritance scheme had to be conducted to ensure stability, but many of the successors aren’t experienced. Not only has Manet never held an elected office nor held a governmental office, raising questions about his experience, but he will also become prime minister without the express mandate of voters. Tea Seiha has little experience in defense.

This sets up a stunted succession process. The party’s current aging grandees will resign but they’ll still rule. If done properly, the princelings will be given more and more independence over time. If performed badly, however, it will be a succession in all but name, with the new generation of leaders never able to stand on their own two feet, increasing the risks of what happens when their fathers are no longer around.

As such, the transfer of the prime ministership (likely next month) will only signify the midway point of the entire succession process. That will only be completed when Hun Sen no longer has any way back to being prime minister. But for as long as he remains the powerbroker, Manet will never be his own man. His inchoate administration will be dictated to by Hun Sen, and his own legitimacy will always be tied to his father’s. He’ll remain “the son.”

If this goes on for too long and Manet isn’t given the leeway to make a crack at forming his own reputation and associations, the danger grows over what happens when Hun Sen, who turns 71 next month, actually departs the political scene.

Source: Radio Free Asia