Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (L) with his West Point-trained son Hun Manet, who many think is being groomed to take over from his father some time after the July 29 elections. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (L) with his West Point-trained son Hun Manet (R), who many think is being groomed to take over the national leadership. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

Several senior military officials are preparing to run for Cambodia’s ruling party in next month’s general elections, a move analysts say could militarize the country’s politics and fortify a dynastic transition of the national leadership.

The Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) is almost certain to win the July 29 elections after the only viable opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), was dissolved last November by the Supreme Court.

That move put the country on a path to military-backed one party rule, some analysts believe. In recent weeks, the CPP announced that Pol Saroeun, commander-in-chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF), will run for a parliamentary seat in Preah Sihanouk province.

Two deputy RCAF commanders-in-chief, Meas Sophea and Kun Kim, will compete for seats in Preah Vihear and Oddar Meanchey provinces, respectively.

Chey Son, secretary-general of Cambodia’s National Authority for Chemical Weapons, and Dy Vichea, deputy chief of the National Police and Prime Minister Hun Sen’s son-in-law, will also vie for election to the National Assembly.

Many other military candidates are now also eyeing a run as either the CPP’s main or reserve candidate in several other constituencies, according to local media reports.

“By fielding so many military candidates, the CPP can further tighten the nexus between itself and military leaders, giving the latter more of the political pie,” says Paul Chambers, a lecturer at the College of Asean Community Studies at Naresuan University in Thailand.

Those runs could serve a dual purpose for Prime Minister Hun Sen, as electoral rules require military officials to temporarily step down in order to run for office.

This means Hun Sen can “propel his loyalists to higher positions in the military,” Chambers said, referring to the maneuvers as a “secret coup.”

Long time allies Prime Minister Hun Sen (R) and Sao Sokha shake hands in September 1999. Photo: AFP/Rob Elliott

This was seen last week when Sao Sokha, an aide to Hun Sen dating back to the 1970s, was promoted to acting commander-in-chief while Pol Saroeun runs for office. Sao Sokha will concurrently retain his position as commander of the military police.

More importantly, Lieutenant General Hun Manet, Hun Sen’s eldest son who many think could take over as Prime Minister in the near future, has also been promoted while other senior officers run contest the polls.

While retaining his position as the RCAF’s deputy commander-in-chief, Hun Manet will now also serve as acting chief of the armed forces and acting chief of joint staff. These positions were temporarily vacated by Meas Sophea and Kun Kim.

Hun Manet also maintains his positions as head of the counter-terrorism task force and deputy commander of his father’s private bodyguard unit, the head of which was recently sanctioned by the US Treasury Department for rights abuses.

For decades, the long-ruling CPP has been closely intertwined with the military. The party was formed in the late 1970s by dissident soldiers from the Khmer Rouge who, with the support of Vietnam, overthrew the genocidal regime in 1979.

It was renamed the CPP in 1991 when the United Nations had a transitional authority in the country ahead of a democratic election in 1993 that aimed at national reconciliation after years of debilitating civil war.

While the CPP lost those polls to the rival FUNCINPEC party, it remained in power through a power-sharing arrangement and later re-seized power outright in a bloody 1997 coup.

The CPP has since endeavored to cocoon the military from any notion of political neutrality, promoting CPP loyalists to the top of its hierarchy and consistently allocating the armed forces with ample state funds.

‘No distinction between politics and military’

Chea Dara, a deputy RCAF commander-in-chief, summed up the military elite’s thinking when he said in 2015: “Every soldier is a member of the people’s army and belongs to the CPP because [Hun Sen] is the feeder, caretaker, commander and leader of the army.”

That relationship is now even more inseparable, says Sophal Ear, an associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College, Los Angeles. “There will be no distinction between politics and the military. These are all under the CPP,” he says.

Some analysts see the CPP’s militarization as a gradual process that has accelerated ahead of next month’s pivotal election.

At the beginning of this year, some 300 RCAF officers were promoted, bringing the number of active duty generals to almost 800. At least six of these joined the CPP’s Central Committee, the party’s administrative body which is already stacked with military officials.

Key military generals, including Meas Sophea, also sit on the CPP’s smaller and more influential Permanent Committee.

The number of army officials appointed to provincial political posts, like governors or commune chiefs, has also increased in recent years.

Where all of this heading, and why, is still a matter of conjecture. There has been intense speculation over the past year about whether Hun Sen, perhaps after July’s general election, will step down as premier and hand power to one of his children.

He has said he intends to stay in power for another two five-year terms, but also commented cryptically in March: “If the prime minister of Cambodia is changed, he must come from the [CPP] because only children of an angel would succeed an angel.”

Hun Manet is now the odds-on favorite to take power in any dynastic handover scenario, political analysts say. Stacking the National Assembly with military officials would thus provide for a stable succession as they are already loyal to him as the RCAF’s deputy commander-in-chief.

While Hun Manet is not a National Assembly member and has shown no sign he will run for office, he could become an MP after the election if a military or other parliamentarian agrees to step aside, a common practice in Cambodia’s politics.

Analysts say this is the most likely scenario as it would also dissuade pre-election speculation about a possible dynastic succession, which if common knowledge would likely complicate a ballot already straining with credibility questions.

Hun Manet’s potential rise would also explain why the CPP is trying to expand the military’s control over national institutions. Some note parallels with Thailand and Myanmar, where the military or military appointees are guaranteed a certain number of seats in parliament.

Analysts who think such a development is possible in Cambodia contend that changes could take place after next month’s general election, at which the CPP is almost certain to win most, if not all, the National Assembly’s seats.

The CPP already controls all 58 elected seats in the Senate, Cambodia’s upper house, after elections in February. This means it has carte blanche to push through whatever constitutional changes it desires.

At the same time, there are questions about whether the military is unified in its support of the CPP, analysts say.

Sam Rainsy, the exiled former president of the CNRP, has in recent months appealed for the support of junior-ranking military officers.

In April, he claimed that many soldiers secretly support the CNRP and voted for the party in last June’s commune election, the last ballot the party contested before its dissolution.

Earlier this year, Sam Rainsy appealed to soldiers to “disobey” if they were ordered to “kill innocent” anti-government, pro-CNRP protestors. The government has since filed incitement charges against the exiled politician.

By ensuring that the CPP’s survival is tied to the military’s hierarchy is both a functional and political move that further blurs the already vague lines between party and state.

It may be a reflection of internal CPP politics, too. Cambodia watchers have long tried to chart factional politics within the CPP, which have become less discernible since the rivalry between Hun Sen and fellow CPP founder Chea Sim ended with the latter’s death in 2015.

Many think Hun Sen now dominates absolutely. But that could change if a CNRP-promoted electoral boycott, the so-called “clean finger” campaign, prompts a low voter turnout next month that raises international criticism of a rigged result, analysts say.

Hun Sen (R) with Interior Minister Sar Kheng, who some analysts say could become the next prime minister. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

Exiled CNRP leaders think Hun Sen would lose legitimacy among the public and perhaps within the CPP as a result. “No one will recognize Hun Sen and he will lose legitimacy. He will not be able to lead the country anymore,” Sam Rainsy recently wrote on his Facebook page.

One potential intra-party rival, analysts say, is Sar Kheng, a deputy prime minister and interior minister. Though there is not any evidence of splits between the two, some speculate Sar Kheng has taken over the allegiances once commanded by his late brother-in-law, Chea Sim.

Chea Somethy, the youngest son of Chea Sim, is governor of Prey Veng province. Sar Kheng’s son, Sar Sokha, is also a CPP lawmaker for Prey Veng and is married to the eldest daughter of Ke Kim Yan, a former RCAF commander-in-chief and a known Chea Sim loyalist.

In 2009, Ke Kim Yan was replaced as military chief by Hun Sen loyalist Pol Saroeun. But he has regained some prominence since as one of the numerous deputy prime ministers and as chairman of the National Authority for Combating Drugs, an agency under Sar Kheng’s interior ministry.

Jonathan Sutton, a researcher at the National Center for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Otago, claimed last year that a number of junior-level soldiers remain loyal to Ke Kim Yan.

“Only 30% now genuinely support Hun Sen,” Sutton asserted, based on information provided by a former government insider.

If true, this means intra-party tensions might overlap with military hierarchy jostling. And this could explain why so many army officials, especially those loyal to Hun Sen, are now being positioned to take seats in the National Assembly.