October 18, 2018
The perception that Hun Sen is establishing a family dynasty in Cambodia has been reinforced with the promotion of his eldest son Hun Manet to the second highest rank in the nation’s military earlier this month. The move came after several of the military’s top leaders, including then commander in chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) General Pol Saroeun, resigned in order to stand for political office in the July general election.
Gen. Dr Hun Manet is a West Pointer with A Doctorate in Economics from Bristol University ,United Kingdom
Hun Sen’s justification for promoting his son likely extends beyond simple nepotism. Although Hun Sen is still relatively young at 66 — and despite his repeated pledges to remain in power for at least the next decade — health problems have led to a number of trips abroad for treatment. A deteriorating condition could make it difficult for him to retain control of the country effectively.
But surrendering power in an authoritarian regime is a dangerous game. Leaders who do so give up control over the very political, economic and military resources that protect them from prosecution or internal competitors while in office.
Indeed, vulnerability to former opponents and rivals after leaving power is one of the reasons that so few non-democratic states are able to achieve stable, regular leadership turnover. It is also one of the reasons that so many authoritarian rulers try to remain in office indefinitely, only relinquishing power on their deathbed — or at gunpoint.
This concern for what might happen if Hun Sen were to leave power may be one of the driving motivators behind Hun Manet’s promotion. Along with the Prime Minister’s personal bodyguard unit, which is bigger than the militaries of some countries, a close member of the family with extensive military support would make anyone in a post-Hun Sen era think twice about coming after ‘the Strongman’.
If Hun Manet is indeed the designated heir (Hun Sen does have five other children, most of whom are politically active and well connected), his high rank in the military could also help to avert the kind of internal conflict seen last year in Zimbabwe. Competition between military and civilian factions over who would replace the ailing Robert Mugabe played a major role in his downfall. Indeed, Mugabe’s disastrous attempts to promote his wife in his place show that it is absolutely vital for a would-be heir to attract the support of senior elites in authoritarian regimes, with popular support (an area where Hun Manet does not excel) being less important.
At the same time, things may not be as simple as they appear. One puzzle is the question of why changes to the top military hierarchy have been so quick and so extensive. Having disbanded the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party last year, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) was virtually guaranteed victory at the polls. Yet Pol Saroeun — one of the most prominent military figures in the regime since the fall of the Khmer Rouge — and two similarly long-serving and prominent deputies — Generals Kun Kim and Meas Sophea — were nominated by the CPP to step down and run for civilian positions.
The reasons for this sudden move are not entirely clear. In addition, the position of Commander in Chief of the RCAF has gone to the virtually unknown General Vong Pisen, who had only a small public profile in his position as deputy head of the National Military Police (recent stories are limited to his role in policing illegal logging along Cambodia’s border with Vietnam). Even more intriguing is the fact that several special military units formerly under Pol Saroeun’s command were transferred from the control of Vong Pisen to Hun Manet — a move that attracted little publicity.
These hints of a changing distribution of power within the RCAF have led some observers to suggest that Vong Pisen’s new position is ‘merely ceremonial’ — that Hun Manet is now the real force of power in the nation’s military. Together with the marked lack of change within the CPP following the election, others have argued that Hun Sen is making these moves because he still does not fully trust the military or other senior elites outside his own family. Hun Manet’s promotion may therefore be as much about securing Hun Sen’s control over the RCAF as it is about preparing his eldest son to become prime minister.
Even if Hun Manet’s promotion really is just about a future succession, it seems unlikely that he will be ready to take over from his father in the next few years. To avoid the kind of destructive internal divisions that could threaten the CPP’s hold on power in the event of a leadership change, Hun Manet needs to be able to convince senior elites that he is capable of independently retaining control as a strong ruler once his father has left the scene.
Although the boundary between party and military is becoming increasingly blurred, Hun Manet’s military credentials do not automatically equal party support. Whether he is capable of managing the endemic rivalries and factionalism that characterise the party remains to be seen.
There is little positive evidence that Hun Manet has enough support among the Cambodian political elite to hold power on his own any time soon — a change of leadership in the kingdom still seems a distant prospect. For now, it is still Hun Sen’s regime.
Jonathan Sutton is a recent PhD graduate from the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Otago.