11 July 2024

The swift decision by Samdech Prime Minister Hun Sen to appoint his son, Hun Manet, as the next leader of Cambodia was a well-calculated and Machiavellian move to create a fresh image for the once war-torn county, as the Southeast Asian nation with the youngest leader.

The fresh optic will be important, to dilute the longstanding negative actions and memories associated with the previous leader. Hun Manet is lucky that he does not have a so-called “legacy trap”, in which his father was, and thus has a unique opportunity to be a transformational Cambodian leader. It is also notable that it is the first time in 500 years of Khmer history that there has been a peaceful transition of leadership.

So far, the Western world and media have exclusively focused on the dark side of the current leader’s governance. In the coming months, there will certainly be a big change in the Western rhetoric about Cambodia and the country’s leadership style.

Cambodia used to be one of the world’s poorest countries. Now, the nation of 17 million people is booming as never before. Phnom Penh is no longer disconnected from the international community, as it was thirty years ago. Truth be told, within the ASEAN context, Cambodia is also considered one of the freer members with a dynamic society.

While Manet’s father’s human rights record is checkered, the local voters still support him and his party, the Cambodia People’s Party. The turnout of nearly 85% was impressive for the seventh election since 1993. Hun Manet has been able to draw on support from young voters, which was not the case for his father. Nonetheless, even though Hun Sen is stepping down, he will remain a powerful figure and oversee the country’s overall development. He is still a popular leader. After all, he has brought peace and stability to Cambodia, which has led to prosperity and wealth.

Throughout Hun Sen’s leadership, both political and economic factors have earned him the most credibility and credit, despite the restrictive measures he employed to cripple his political opponents. In the coming weeks, Hun Manet needs to show, especially during the first 100 days, his governing ability. Among the top priorities will be improving the living standards of Khmer people, to reduce the rate of poverty. Furthermore, he must make his country an international hub of more diversified foreign investment and negotiate more free trade agreements. Later, he will need to carry out some deep institutional reforms, inherited from the previous administration. Younger leaders should be brought into the Cabinet. It will be a tall order.

As far as international cooperation and perception are concerned, however, the new prime minister faces a huge challenge. He must promote a free and open society in Cambodia in tangible ways. The country still needs foreign assistance from countries that set a high standard of governance and rule of law.

Hun Manet, 45, is young and Western-educated with a knowledge of Western military and economic doctrines. That will come in handy when he actually takes up the premiership. Not to overstate the new leadership, he could be a catalyst to propel Cambodia into a new and vibrant developing country. Cambodia, under Hun Sen, has not shied away from the international limelight, whether on the Russia-Ukraine war, the quagmire in Myanmar or US-China rivalries, among others. His son is likely to stay on this trajectory in engaging with powerful external powers, regardless of their attitude towards the country.

As a young cadet, he showed interest in regional and international affairs. At one of the lectures given by this writer in 2005 on ASEAN and its global roles, Hun Manet was extremely interested in seeing the formation and joint operation of ASEAN peacekeeping forces in the future. In a related development, in the past two months, after the electoral triumph of Thailand’s Move Forward Party, Hun Sen was the only leader to comment on the progressive party’s demeanor. Indeed, one of the purposes of anointing his son so quickly could also stem from a desire for Cambodia to have a young and fresh leader as well. Originally, Hun Sen planned to appoint his son later next year.

Now that the baton has been passed to him, Hun Manet has to move quickly to promote Cambodia’s national interest and follow regional and international rules-based norms. He is lucky to enter the ring now, as Cambodia has emerged with fewer bruises than other ASEAN countries from the havoc and hazards of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the youngest leader in ASEAN, in the beginning, Hun Manet will be in listening mode, trying to absorb lessons learned from the ASEAN elders, in particular his father. Closer ties with ASEAN and active engagement in economic diplomacy and people-to-people exchange, especially with the young, could be his unique forte. Now Cambodia can show the international community what kind of transformation he can bring about, to generate a new, fresh and respectable image for his country.

By Kavi Chongkittavorn