- By Jonathan Head
- Southeast Asia Correspondent, Phnom Penh
1 hour ago
Hun Manet, son of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, is expected to succeed his father within weeks
Undeterred by the pouring rain, a long convoy of motorbikes with cheering, flag-waving supporters of Cambodia’s ruling party revved up in preparation for their triumphant closing rally in downtown Phnom Penh.
People dutifully lined the street as far as the eye could see, party stickers on their cheeks, the sky-blue hats and shirts they had been given getting wetter and wetter.
In the back of a truck, Hun Manet, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s eldest son, 45, greeted the crowd and announced that only the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) was capable of running the country.
In fact, his father had ensured that the CPP was the only party that could possibly win the election.
Hun Sen, 70, has ruled Cambodia for 38 years in his typically combative style: first under a Vietnam-installed communist regime, then under a multi-party system installed by the United Nations, and more recently as an increasingly intolerant autocrat.
The only party now able to challenge his rule, the Candlelight Party, was formally excluded from the election in May. The remaining 17 parties allowed to compete were too small or not well known to pose a threat.
A few hours after the polls closed, the CPP recorded the expected landslide with a turnout of over 80%. There were quite a few invalid ballots at some polling stations: it was arguably the only safe way for voters to show their support for the opposition.
With Hun Manet expected to succeed his father within weeks of the vote in a long-prepared handover of power, this felt more like a coronation than an election.
“I don’t think we can call it a sham election at all,” says Mu Sochua, an exiled former minister and member of the CNRP, another opposition party banned by Cambodian authorities in 2017.
“We should call it an ‘election’ so Hun Sen makes sure his party elects his son as Cambodia’s next prime minister to continue the Hun family dynasty.”
Hun Sen, who has been in power for 38 years, did not face any real challenge in the election
Still, there were signs of nervousness ahead of the vote in the CPP. New legislation was hastily passed criminalizing any promotion of voice-tampering or boycotts. Several Candlelight members were arrested.
“Why didn’t the CPP fight so hard against anyone in this election, with no real opposition?” asks Ou Virath, founder of Cambodian think tank Future Forum.
“They knew they were going to win the election – that was an easy result for them. But gaining legitimacy is much more difficult.”
“They must continue to weaken the opposition, but at the same time they must also please the people so that previous setbacks and disruptions such as street protests are not repeated.”
Hun Sen is one of Asia’s great survivors, a shrewd, astute politician who has consistently outmaneuvered his opponents. He skillfully pitted China, currently by far the largest foreign investor, against the US and Europe, which are trying to regain lost influence in the region.
But he has come close to losing elections in the past. He is still vulnerable to rival factions within his own ruling party and to any sudden downturn in Cambodia’s economy that might anger public opinion against him. As he prepares for a once-in-a-lifetime leadership change, he seeks to cement his legacy.
A short drive north of the capital, a 33m-tall concrete and marble monolith he calls the “Win-Win Monument” was recently erected.
The Win-Win Memorial opened in 2018 and reportedly cost $12 million
Its massive base is covered with carved stone reliefs reminiscent of Angkor Wat, Cambodia’s greatest historical monument.
They show Hun Sen’s escape from Khmer Rouge-ruled Cambodia to Vietnam in 1977, his triumphant return with the invading Vietnamese army in 1979, and his eventual deal with the last Khmer Rouge leader in 1998, ending the long civil war – his win-win situation for the Cambodian people.
The creation of peace and prosperity has long been Hun Sen’s primary claim to legitimacy. Since 1998, Cambodia has had one of the fastest growing economies in the world, albeit at a very low level.
But it’s a growth model that has concentrated wealth in the hands of a few families — the number of ultra-luxury cars on the streets of such a low-income country is staggering. It has encouraged the predatory exploitation of Cambodia’s natural resources and left many ordinary people feeling like they are not winning under Mr. Sen.
Prak Sopheap lives with her family in the back of an engine repair shop, wedged between the main road and one of the many shallow lakes in the lowlands outside Phnom Penh. They have been there for 25 years, fishing and growing vegetables by the lake.
Today, however, much of the lake has been filled with rubble by a contractor and Mrs Sopheap’s family has been ordered to leave the lake area.
She showed me a document from the local council confirming how long she had lived there and another document, a subpoena for the illegal occupation of state lands. She feels powerless and angry – and she is not alone.
Prak Sopheap was ordered to leave her home where she had lived for 25 years
Land disputes are among the worst grievances in Cambodia. All title deeds were destroyed in the Khmer Rouge revolution.
Since the end of the civil war, millions of hectares have been set aside for commercial development, a lucrative arrangement that has made many politicians and companies allied with Hun Sen very wealthy.
The courts very rarely rule against these powerful interests. Transparency International ranks Cambodia 150th out of 180 countries for corruption: in the Asia-Pacific region, only Myanmar and North Korea rank lower.
“Hun Sen always talks about his ‘win-win policy,'” says Ms. Sopheap. “But we feel like he’s going to win on his own. We cannot feel at peace as we now face displacement. We, the real Cambodian people living on this land, are suffering in the name of development.”
Those who tried to stop land grabs and evictions were harassed, beaten and imprisoned, as were trade unionists and opposition party supporters. I asked Mrs Sopheap how she would vote in this election. “Who can I vote for?” she asked. “Who can protect me?”
Half of those entitled to vote are under the age of 35. The CPP has tried to attract them by letting Hun Manet and other younger party leaders run this year’s election campaign with a shrewd social media strategy.
But since most Cambodians have no memory of the war or the Khmer Rouge, Ly Chandravuth, a 23-year-old law student and environmental activist, says the old CPP campaign points are no longer convincing.
“The biggest challenge for Hun Manet will be that my generation is very different from the generation before that that was traumatized by the Khmer Rouge,” he says.
“Ever since I was a child, I have watched the ruling party remind us of this tragedy and tell us that if they brought peace, we should support them. But this argument is becoming less and less effective. Every time the ruling party brings it up, the young generation mocks them for repeating it for 30 years.”
Can Hun Manet transform his father’s rough, sometimes brutal leadership style into a gentler and more subtle kind of rulership? Despite his Western education, his years as army chief and his long apprenticeship, he has never held a top political office.
With him, other “princely” sons of Hun Sen’s contemporaries, such as Defense Minister Tea Banh and Interior Minister Sar Keng, are also expected to replace their fathers in the cabinet – a dynastic change that means the levers of power will remain in the same families, albeit in less experienced hands. The next few years could be a delicate, even dangerous time for Cambodia.