Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen in the shade. Photo: PinInterest

After 36 years in power, is Hun Sen plotting a safe departure from politics? 

Unconfirmed reports assert that Cambodia’s long-ruling Prime Minister is planning to amend the constitution to allow amnesties for high-ranking politicians, a move that could protect him from future prosecution should he step down.

In recent years, Hun Sen has spoken more openly about retirement. In 2017, he said he wanted another decade in office. But in August this year, he said he is no longer setting a timeline. 

For some time, it appeared a fait accompli that Hun Sen’s exit strategy would be to hand power to his eldest son, the de-facto military leader Hun Manet, who has taken on greater authority over the past two years within the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), which has been in power since 1979.

However, Asia Times understands that Hun Manet is unpopular among some CPP grandees and a slim majority in the ruling party’s Central Committee, its bloated decision-making body, has opposed this dynastic handover. 

Late last year, rumors emerged that Hun Sen might instead look to Finance Minister Aun Pornmoniroth as his replacement, either as a stop-gap before Hun Manet’s coronation or as a compromise candidate to placate Manet skeptics within the CPP. 

But rumors also swirl that Interior Minister Sar Kheng, the main factional rival to Hun Sen within the ruling party, might be preparing his bid to force Hun Sen to call it quits. 

A good deal of confusion arose in August when Sar Kheng traveled to Paris for two weeks. 

Then opposition leader Sam Rainsy delivers a speech to members of the Cambodia National Rescue Party at a hotel in metro Manila. Photo: Reuters / Romeo Ranoco

At the time, there was speculation that he visited the French capital to meet with exiled politicians from the now-banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), the country’s largest opposition group that was forcibly dissolved in late 2017 on spurious charges of plotting a US-backed coup. 

Indeed, Sar Kheng’s trip abroad coincided with talk from acting CNRP president Sam Rainsy about forming a “National Unity Government” with the Interior Minister, a claim that suggested bipartisan agreement could be reached to remove Hun Sen.

Instead, Sar Kheng traveled to Paris for 14 days to “undergo a medical examination and surgery by French doctors,” his staff told the media when he returned in early September. 

Any long-term illness for Sar Kheng, 70, would allow Hun Sen to consolidate complete authority within the CPP, a final step for the prime minister who has defeated most intra-party rivals and would probably make it easier for Hun Manet to assume power. 

Or, as some pundits have speculated, Sar Kheng may have been seeking a clean bill of health in anticipation of a looming political battle with Hun Sen over the future of the ruling party. 

A week or so after Sar Kheng arrived back in Phnom Penh, Hun Sen reportedly gatecrashed an online Zoom meeting between members of the now-banned CNRP, leading to rumors that he wanted to parlay with the group. 

Hun Sen’s spokespeople claimed that this wasn’t illegal – although the Prime Minister has previously boasted of his ability to spy on any online communications – and that he wasn’t seeking to negotiate with the opposition politicians, but rather to chide them for their alleged treasonous activity.  

Cambodia’s ruling party, which came to power in 1979 by helping Vietnamese forces overthrow the genocidal Khmer Rouge, has been rife with factional disputes for decades. 

Then Cambodian guerrilla movement leader Prince Norodom Ranarridh, right, with Hun Sen in 1990. Photo: AFP / Francis Silvan

In 1997, Hun Sen and his private bodyguard unit launched a bloody coup against their power-sharing rivals, the royalist Funcinpec party that had ruled as a coalition since 1993. 

Hun Sen also used the coup to secure more power for himself within the CPP and his tentacular control over society, including by placing family members in important posts.

The power of the Hun family, from its vast business empire to its control of CPP-linked civil society groups, swelled in the subsequent years, while Hun Sen expanded his authority over the CPP apparatus, especially as more elderly factional rivals passed away. 

Political scientists are unsure whether Cambodia is now a simple authoritarian state, after the CPP won all parliamentary seats at the 2018 general election, which the CNRP was banned from participating in. Or whether Hun Sen has crafted a “personalist dictatorship” for himself. 

“The consolidation of power by Hun Sen has been successful, decisive, and, of course, has come with friction and resistance,” said a source with close knowledge of Cambodian politics, who requested anonymity. 

“In general, though, you have to give Hun Sen a lot of credit for how he is doing it,” the source said. Hun Sen had shared the spoils with enough important people and tried to instill the belief among the party’s old elites that any resistance would be far too little, too few, and too insignificant, the source added. 

But Hun Sen and the CPP are not synonymous, analysts reckon, and over the years Sar Kheng has collated factional support from various sections of the state, including those allied to his late brother-in-law Chea Sim, the CPP president until his death in 2015. 

Asia Times understands that a slim majority of the party’s Central Committee made it known that it is against the idea of a dynastic handover.

The CPP’s aging leaders are fearful of losing their influence and power to a younger cohort of officials that have coalesced around Hun Manet, 43, potentially steering the party towards even greater factional leadership.

Hun Manet, the eldest son of Hun Sen, attends a sporting event in Phnom Penh in January 2018. Photo: Reuters

“This whole process will necessarily surpass many [CPP politicians] who have been waiting in the wings for so long, and skip straight to the new generation of CPP princelings, whose ‘sacrifice’ for the party and the country a lot of people might question,” a source said. 

In June 2020, Manet was named the new leader of the CPP’s youth wing in what appears to be a bid to cement his leadership over the party’s younger members. 

As well as taking on many of his father’s social duties and his close contacts with the business world, Manet also controls swathes of the party’s civil-society groups. 

“The Covid-19 pandemic is giving the succession plan a good cover and an opportunity to sweep in the new prince on a white horse,” said a source. 

As the de-facto military chief, Manet has been front-and-center of the country’s successful vaccination campaign, in which the armed forces have played an important role in inoculating the population.  

Manet and his wife, Pich Chanmony, a business tycoon, are also directors of the Samdech Techo Youth Volunteer Doctor Association (TYDA), a supposedly independent volunteer group that has also played a key role in the country’s successful Covid-19 vaccination program. 

For now, commentators who spoke to Asia Times said it was 50-50 whether Manet would get the succession nod.

Hun Sen needs to be healthy, wealthy and in control so as to prevent potential frictions that could emerge, said a source. “He will need to instill hope and fear, and probably buy off some potential rivals,” they added. 

They went on: “Hun Sen doesn’t have much more time.”

Analysts have speculated that Hun Sen could try to follow the “Singapore Model,” in which a caretaker figure like Finance Minister Aun Pornmoniroth governs for several years until Manet has gained the experience and trust to rule. 

Minister of the Interior Sar Kheng is a key player in Cambodia’s political scene. Photo: AFP / Nora Lorek / TT News Agency

The alternative is a “palace coup.” Some senior CPP officials, sources say, think a Sar Kheng leadership would limit the excesses of corruption at the heart of the Cambodian government. Or it would spread the kick-backs more equitably among the party grandees.  

Sar Kheng has run the powerful Interior Ministry – a state within a state – since 1992. He is also believed to command the support of several key ministries and of the “technocratic” officials in government and state apparatus, some of whom are thought to be concerned about how Hun Sen’s actions are damaging the economy. 

For decades, Sar Kheng has been viewed by some pundits and foreign diplomats, especially those from the United States, as the more moderate and amenable alternative to Hun Sen, who has steered Cambodia towards a much closer relationship with Beijing in recent years. 

US-Cambodia relations have deteriorated considerably since 2017, and Hun Sen has been at the forefront of pushing for even stronger ties with Beijing. 

According to sources, intra-party conflict was put on hold because of the Covid-19 pandemic and the pressing demand for economic recovery, challenges the like of which Hun Sen and the CPP haven’t had to face since the 1990s when by hook-and-crook they successfully ended Cambodia’s three-decade civil war. 

On the one hand, the government can now boast of Cambodia having one of the highest vaccination rates in the world, with about 66% of the population fully vaccinated and potentially the entire population by the end of the year. 

But Cambodia’s current political leaders, most of whom are in their late sixties or seventies, are not about to get any respite over the coming years. 

The economy, which was growing at a healthy rate of about 7% between the late 1990s and 2019, has stalled and now requires intricate management from a government that has typically preferred a laissez-faire approach.  

The economy contracted by 3.1% in 2020 and the Asian Development Bank recently downgraded its economic growth forecast to 1.9% this year, down from its April projection of 4%. Growth this year isn’t certain. 

On top of that, Hun Sen also has the added pressure of having to take on the rotating presidency of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) bloc next year, which will bring even more scrutiny on his government’s close ties with China, a source of international strain for Hun Sen since 2017. 

Cambodia will also hold local elections next summer and a general election in mid-2023, and the government will need to offer up a facade of democracy to escape further censure from Western states.

Kem Sokha, the former leader of the now-banned Cambodia National Rescue Party, is refusing to bend to Hun Sen’s will, at great personal cost. Photo: AFP / Tang Chhin Sothy

No decision has yet been made over Kem Sokha, the CNRP president who was arrested for treason in September 2017 and is still waiting to have his day in court. Hun Sen is believed to want the opposition politician to agree to reform the CNRP as a party pliant to the whim of the CPP, but Kem Sokha has so far not taken the bait.

No one expects the CPP to lose the upcoming elections – and the ruling party is already gearing up its campaign with nine months to go before the commune ballot – but they will be read by the party as a bellwether on its popularity.

With the CNRP unlikely to feature on the ballot and none of the dozen or so smaller parties appearing popular with the electorate, the CPP could again face international censure over winning a majority of seats. 

Worse, a significant number of Cambodian voters could boycott or spoil their ballots – as they did at the 2018 general election – which would send a strong signal of public displeasure to the CPP. 

Hun Sen has an important decision to make. He could lead the CPP into the two elections, hoping to get a clear mandate from the electorate after which he could retire and leave the CPP with stability. 

But this could backfire and the two elections could reveal the ruling party is actually unpopular. 

Alternatively, Hun Sen could decide to step down ahead of the 2023 general election, in which case the ballot would be seen as a referendum on his replacement. 

Prime Minister Hun Sen makes a point. Photo: AFP / Tang Chhin Sothy

But that will require long and painful intra-party debates ahead of the election and risks throwing the CPP into turmoil if his successor doesn’t perform well. 

Then again, the CPP may decide that its own leadership question is far too tricky to decide over such a grueling period when all of the government’s energy will be consumed by economic recovery, which may be a more difficult feat than some analysts forecast. 

Whether Hun Sen, who turns 70 next August, feels up for the challenge could be the deciding factor.