Cambodia's Hun Sen, Asia's longest serving leader, says he'll step down and his son will take over

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FILE- Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen of the Cambodian People's Party (CPP) raises a ballot before voting at a polling station at Takhmua in Kandal province, southeast Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on July 23, 2023. Longtime Cambodian leader Hun Sen says he will step down in three weeks as prime minister and hand the position to his oldest son. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith, File)

PHNOM PENH – Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said Wednesday he will step down in August and hand the position to his oldest son, though Asia’s longest-serving leader is expected to continue to wield significant power.

The widely anticipated move comes after the autocratic Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party secured a landslide victory Sunday in elections that Western countries and rights organizations criticized as neither free nor fair, partially because the country's main opposition was barred from competing.

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The rise to power of Hun Sen’s son — 45-year-old Hun Manet, who won his first seat in Parliament just days ago and is chief of the country’s army — is part of a larger generational shift: Many younger lawmakers are expected to take up ministerial positions, including Hun Sen’s youngest son and others related to other older party members.

Many were educated in the West, like Hun Manet, who has a bachelor's degree from the United States Military Academy West Point, a master’s from New York University and a doctorate from Bristol University in Britain, all in economics.

That could herald a change in tone from Cambodia's leaders, said Ou Virak, president of Phnom Penh’s Future Forum think tank, but he does not expect any major policy shifts.

“There will be an obvious change in style of leadership," he said in a telephone interview. "The shift to the younger generation just makes the conversations on policy potentially a little more vibrant.”

Still, he said it represented a critical moment. “He won’t let go, he can’t let go,” he said of Hun Sen. “But I think once you go into semi-retirement, there’s no turning back."

Hun Sen — who has progressively tightened his grip on power over 38 years in office while also ushering in a free-market economy that has raised the standards of living of many Cambodians — is expected to retain a large amount of control, as his party’s president and president of the Senate.

He suggested as much himself in his televised address to the nation announcing when he would be stepping down.

“I will still have the ability to serve the interests of the people and help the government oversee the country’s security and public order, as well as joining them on guiding the development of the country,” he said.

Hun Sen was a middle-ranking commander in the radical communist Khmer Rouge regime, which was blamed for the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians from starvation, illness and killing in the 1970s, before defecting to Vietnam.

When Vietnam ousted the Khmer Rouge from power in 1979, Hun Sen quickly became a senior member of the new Cambodian government installed by Hanoi and eventually helped bring an end to three decades of civil war.

Over the decades, Hun Sen has used strongarm tactics to stifle opposition and has also steadily moved Cambodia closer to China. That is unlikely to change radically, Ou Virak said, though the new generation may be "wary of overdependence on China.”

Under Hun Sen, Cambodia was elevated from a low-income country to lower middle-income status in 2015, and expects to attain middle-income status by 2030, according to the World Bank.

But at the same time, the gap between the rich and poor has greatly widened, deforestation has spread at an alarming rate, and there has been widespread land grabbing by Hun Sen’s Cambodian allies and foreign investors.

After a challenge from the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party in 2013 that the CPP barely overcame at the polls, Hun Sen responded by going after leaders of the opposition, and eventually the country’s sympathetic courts dissolved the party.

Ahead of Sunday’s election, the unofficial successor to the CNRP, known as the Candlelight Party, was barred on a technicality from running in the election by the National Election Committee.

Following the election, the European Union criticized the vote as having been “conducted in a restricted political and civic space where the opposition, civil society and the media were unable to function effectively without hindrance.”

The United States went a step further, saying that it had taken steps to impose visa restrictions “on individuals who undermined democracy and implemented a pause of foreign assistance programs” after determining the elections were “neither free nor fair.”

Cambodians in general, however, seem to think Hun Manet is qualified to take over from his father, Ou Virak said.

“The Cambodian people, while some of them might be upset that this is basically a dynastic kind of succession, most have not known any other way,” he said.


Rising reported from Bangkok.

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