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

BANGKOK – Hun Manet, who trained at the US Military Academy at West Point, may become Cambodia’s next leader after his pro-China father, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, recently anointed him, prompting scrutiny about how the heir apparent would deal with Washington and Beijing.

Hun Sen, 69, is often scathing in his criticism of the US. He favors China’s deepening economic and strategic relationship with Cambodia, which is bordered by Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam, and opens toward the South China Sea where the US and Beijing are in a tense stand-off.

“Cambodia is far too deep in with China to be able to rebalance quickly” if Hun Manet becomes prime minister, said Ear Sophal, an Arizona State University associate dean and professor for global development who co-authored the book The Hungry Dragon: How China’s Resource Quest Is Reshaping the World.

“Despite his West Point education and MA in economics from New York University, and a PhD in economics from Bristol [University in England], and while I know he is not averse to the US on a personal level – having spent years in America, and visited in the years since – the decision to tilt towards China is one that he alone cannot change,” Sophal said in an interview.

When Hun Sen visited Beijing in 2020, he took Manet along and introduced him to China’s President Xi Jinping.

In 1999, Hun Sen stood proudly next to his son at West Point, New York, during graduation ceremonies when Manet became the first Cambodian to earn a West Point diploma.

While attending the co-educational, four-year undergraduate college – which describes itself as “the pre-eminent leader development institution” – Manet rubbed shoulders with US Army officers during warfare training.

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

After West Point, Manet became the Royal Cambodian Army’s commander, and deputy commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces, plus deputy commander of his father’s bodyguard unit and the head of Cambodia’s counter-terrorism unit.

In June 2021, however, Washington stopped allowing Cambodia to send students to West Point and other US military academies amid worsening relations.

“Following Cambodia’s curtailment of cooperation in several areas of traditional bilateral military-military engagement, the country lost its eligibility for the US military service academy program,” US Embassy in Cambodia’s spokesman Arend Zwartjes told Voice of America.

“Unless he [Manet] himself signals rapprochement with the United States through actions and not just words, the United States is likely to stay the course with Cambodia, cooling relations,” the academic Sophal said.

In December, the central committee of Hun Sen’s powerful Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) unanimously endorsed Manet, 44, as “the prime minister candidate in the future.”

The CPP holds all of the parliament’s seats, and general elections are scheduled for 2023. Hun Sen may step aside at that time and allow his son to take over.

Alternatively, if Hun Sen runs for re-election in 2023, he may now be cementing Manet as heir apparent for elections in 2028, or if anything unexpected happens to Hun Sen before then.

Perhaps to defuse perceptions that he is dictating a dynastic power grab, Hun Sen said in a December speech: “If Hun Manet makes a mistake, I will not support my son to be the prime minister, because it affects the party.”

Hun Sen, left, speaks with Sar Kheng, the second most powerful man in Cambodia. The two are thought to be at odds over a number of issues, including Hun Manet. Photo: AFP / Tang Chhin Sothy

Hun Sen also invited senior CPP officials to suggest other candidates, including some of their sons.

“Even if they are the sons of [CPP vice-president] Sar Kheng, [deputy prime minister and defense minister] Tea Banh or other deputy prime ministers, or [parliament’s first vice-president] Cheam Yeap’s son, please propose your candidates,” Hun Sen said, according to the pro-government Khmer Times.

To confuse rivals, Hun Sen also vowed in December to remain prime minister for 10 more years.

Manet’s advantages come from his father’s harsh, command-driven style of governing, which increased after elections in 2018 resulted in a one-party regime. But the son is overshadowed by Hun Sen’s blood-stained reputation.

Hun Sen lost an eye while fighting as a loyal mid-level Khmer Rouge commander of Cambodia’s Eastern Zone during an anti-US insurgency in the regional Vietnam War, which later enabled Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot’s 1975-79 murderous rule.

Fearing he might be purged, Hun Sen and others defected to Vietnam in 1977, while Pol Pot’s government presided over the death of approximately one in four Cambodians by execution, torture and starvation.

In 1979, Vietnam invaded Cambodia, chased Pol Pot into the jungle and began a 10-year occupation with Hun Sen as Cambodia’s foreign minister and, in 1985, prime minister.

“Given that his father waged war against the US – while he [Manet] was trained in war by the US – Manet’s deeper understanding of US society, culture and politics may enable him to display more nuance in balancing Cambodia’s interests between the US and China than has his father,” said Craig Etcheson.

Etcheson researched Cambodian affairs for 40 years and spent more than a decade living in Cambodia. He authored four books about the country, including After the Killing Fields: Lessons from the Cambodian Genocide, and Extraordinary Justice: Law, Politics, and the Khmer Rouge Tribunals.

Investigator Craig Etcheson in the early 1990s at a notorious former Khmer Rouge security center near Trapeang Sva village in Trea Commune, Kandal Stung district in Kandal province, just outside Phnom Penh. Photo: Craig Etcheson

“I would expect that the US military attaches in Phnom Penh attempt to maintain close links with Hun Manet, and that US ambassadors give him due attention,” Etcheson said.

Washington, however, may be in a weak position competing with Beijing for Manet’s favor.

“The US cannot win a bidding war against China for the loyalty of a dictatorship,” said Richard Garella, who was The Cambodia Daily newspaper’s managing editor in the 1990s, opposition leader Sam Rainsy’s press secretary in 1998-99 and a US-funded International Republican Institute consultant during 2003 in Cambodia.

“It would make sense for Hun Manet to run for a seat in the assembly [parliament] at his earliest convenience. That way he could be elected prime minister at any convenient time,” Garella said.

Hun Sen now governs without the opposition leaders who previously plagued him.

Former prime minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh, who yearned for a political comeback, died in self-exile at the age of 77 in France in November.

Also in November, self-exiled Sam Rainsy – who often voiced nonexistent conspiracies smearing Hun Sen – lost his alliance with opposition leader Kem Sokha during a political feud.

Sokha, who headed the now-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party, is now on trial in Cambodia on treason charges which he denies and many say are trumped up.

Several other opponents of Hun Sen have also been jailed, fled abroad, cowed into silence or had their political parties dissolved.

The prime minister’s anti-US posture includes his attempt in 2017 to have an unidentified grandchild renounce his or her American citizenship, after being born in the US when one of Hun Sen’s six adult children studied there.

“Now I am finding a way to renounce US citizenship from my grandchild because probably the US will make war with some countries and will require my grandchild to be a US soldier,” the prime minister wrote in a Facebook post, according to Associated Press.

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Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American foreign correspondent reporting from Asia since 1978. Excerpts from his two new nonfiction books, Rituals. Killers. Wars. & Sex. – Tibet, India, Nepal, Laos, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka & New York, and Apocalyptic Tribes, Smugglers & Freaks are available at https://asia-correspondent.tumblr.com.