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, left, with his West Point-trained son Hun Manet, who is being groomed to take over. Photo: AFP / Tang Chhin Sothy

Cambodia’s politics have been so tumultuous in recent years that it is difficult to predict what will happen over the next few weeks, let alone the coming year. But it won’t take long to get a hint of what to expect in 2020.

On January 15, opposition leader Kem Sokha will finally have his day in court after being arrested and charged with treason in 2017 on what many view as trumped up charges of trying to overthrow the government.

Observers and analysts expect Kem Sokha to be convicted of the anti-state charge and then swiftly handed a royal pardon by Prime Minister Hun Sen, on the condition that he doesn’t re-enter politics.

Such an outcome may or may not ease international criticism of Hun Sen’s moves to dissolve Kem Sokha’s Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), once the country’s main opposition party, and form a de facto one-party state after rigged elections in 2018.

In early February, the European Union (EU) will decide whether to remove Cambodia from its Everything But Arms (EBA) trade scheme, preferential treatment which gives the nation’s exports tariff and quota-free access to EU markets.

It will mark the culmination of a year-long review by the EU into the country’s democratic and human rights records, as well as broader labor and free speech concerns.

Josep Borrell, the EU’s new de facto foreign minister, told his Cambodian counterpart on December 15 on the sidelines of a Europe-Asia summit that “more efforts are needed” to maintain EBA status. Hun Sen responded that “if they want to cut it, let them cut it.”

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen speaks during a ground breaking ceremony in Phnom Penh on January 14, 2019. Photo: AFP/Ly Lay

It’s not immediately clear how big an impact EBA’s removal would have on Cambodia’s wider economy. Given the EU is one of Cambodia’s largest and most lucrative export markets, it would certainly weaken the export sector, especially garment manufacturing, far and away the country’s most important industry.

Yet even if the EU removes Cambodia from the scheme, tariffs won’t be imposed until late 2020, so the impact won’t be immediate. The government, meanwhile, has promised to subsidize higher trade costs and fast-track a long-planned shift away from export dependency.

Moreover, America’s policy on Cambodia’s democratic backsliding is increasingly divorced from the EU’s. Washington has taken a less vocal, more subtle approach since new US Ambassador W Patrick Murphy arrived in Phnom Penh in August.

Some analysts expect a more explicit rapprochement in 2020, as the US aims to countervail China’s tightening grip on the country.
That would be anathema to the CNRP’s exiled leaders and members who have lobbied for a stiffer US response to Hun Sen’s repression.

In late 2019, the CNRP’s exiled co-leader, Sam Rainsy, failed in a highly publicized bid to return to the country with other party officials and force the government’s hand, a move that failed as Hun Sen blocked all roads and air strips into the country.

By finally bringing Kem Sokha to court in mid-January, the verdict on his status will bring certain closure to his two-year detention and provide new clarity to Hun Sen’s plans.

That said, it already seems increasingly hopeless that the CNRP will be allowed to reform or, for Sam Rainsy and other party grandees, to return unless they renounce their political ambitions.

Kem Sokha, the now jailed leader of the dissolved CNRP, greets supporters during an election in Phnom Penh on May 20, 2017. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

If so, 2020 could mark the end of the CNRP.

With a strengthened hand at home and abroad, some speculate that Hun Sen, one of the world’s longest serving leaders, will give new emphasis to preparations for a dynastic handover of power to his eldest son, Hun Manet.

Plans to catapult Hun Manet, Hun Sen’s eldest son who in 2018 was appointed deputy commander-in-chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, to the national leadership are reportedly well underway.

He has also been promoted to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party’s (CPP) Permanent Committee, an elite decision-making body.
Despite being the second, not first, highest ranking military official, the US West Point educated Hun Manet now represents Cambodia on most official military visits abroad.

He travelled to over a dozen countries in 2019 to meet with fellow military leaders, providing him opportunities to network with regional leaders, personal relations that would serve him well if he eventually becomes national leader.

At home, however, it isn’t altogether certain that Hun Manet has the complete trust of CPP apparatchiks, nor a prominent enough public profile to assure a smooth and unchallenged father-to-son dynastic succession.

But 2020 could be the year that changes. Over three days in December, for instance, he opened a factory, handed out certificates at a university graduation ceremony, presided over a Cambodian Red Cross event and spoke to Cambodian students in Australia and New Zealand.

Hun Sen has presided over such events for decades and some expect Hun Manet will gradually fill that role in a step-by-step well-measured succession process. Indeed, some speculate he may begin to assume some of his father’s official duties in the year ahead.

His Facebook page, a now essential prerequisite for any Cambodian leader, is also starting to track with more than 671,000 followers. That’s still a fraction of the number his father’s page commands, but is far more than most CPP officials.

For instance, Sar Kheng, the interior minister and next most powerful CPP official after Hun Sen, has only 190,445 followers on his page.

Winning over the CPP elite, to be sure, will be harder than gathering Facebook friends.

If succession is to succeed, potentially in 2021 or 2022, Hun Sen will need to neutralize or co-opt potential rivals and spoilers, either via purges, reshuffles or promises to promote prominent CPP politicians’ children to plum posts.

Hun Manet (L) and then-Military Police chief Sao Sokha (R) pray at a ceremony at the Ministry of National Defense, Phnom Penh, June 30, 2018. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

Some analysts believe Hun Sen would prefer to hand power to his son before the country enters a potentially uncertain new election cycle, with local elections scheduled for 2022 and a general election in 2023.

If indeed this is Hun Sen’s plan, then Hun Manet will likely be take up a National Assembly seat some time in 2020, a requiste step to becoming prime minister.

Seat-swapping is common and would not require a by-election if CPP stalwarts agree, though any such move would likely give the succession game plan away before it’s officially announced.

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