Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen on Monday walked back recent statements vowing exclusive support for the candidacy of his son to someday replace him in office, saying the contest is still open, Cambodian sources said.

Analysts said that Hun Sen, who has held power in Cambodia for more than 35 years, may have softened his stance over fear of provoking a damaging rift within his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

Speaking on Monday at the opening of a new national road in southeastern Cambodia’s Prey Veng province, Hun Sen said that he himself will run for reelection in any case in 2023.

Hun Sen’s son Hun Manet, 44, will not be eligible to run for the country’s top political job until 2028, he said, adding that the CPP at that time should have at least four candidates contending for the post.

“I can say that Hun Manet will be one of the candidates. This does not mean that he’ll be the only candidate,” Hun Sen said.

He also urged the son of the current Defense Minister Tea Banh, the son of Interior Minister Sar Kheng, and the son of the National Assembly’s first vice-president Cheam Yeap to compete for the position.

“Their opportunity to run will not come before 2028, though, and will probably be sometime between 2028, 2029, and 2030. They will have to wait,” he said.

Following Hun Sen’s statement, Sar Kheng’s son Sar Sokha, who now serves as secretary of state for Cambodia’s Ministry of Education, quickly issued his own endorsement for Hun Manet — who already commands Cambodia’s army as a three-star general — to be Cambodia’s next prime minister.

Cambodian political analyst Kim Sok, now living in exile in Finland, said that Hun Sen’s retreat from endorsing his son at a public event last week to someday succeed him shows concern over unrest within the CPP.

“It was normal, when Hun Sen raised this matter publicly before, for Sar Kheng, who was sitting behind him in the ceremony, not to express any public opposition,” he said.

“But Hun Sen now has to release some of this tension so that the public will not feel that Cambodia is following the example of North Korea by establishing a family dynasty.”

Hun Sen’s own position as prime minister is not fully legitimate, Kim Sok said, adding that by elevating Hun Manet to high office, Hun Sen may only be subjecting his son to unwelcome international scrutiny.

Based on party ranking order, Sar Kheng should succeed Hun Sen as prime minister in any case, said U.S.-based Cambodian political analyst So Naro.

“Like it or not, it should be Sar Kheng who receives the transfer of power,” he said.

Sok Ey San, spokesman for the CPP, denied the existence of any tension within the ruling party, saying Cambodian opposition groups have pointed to what he called imagined rifts within the CPP for more than 40 years.

“There is no division at all,” he said.

Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the country’s main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, in November 2017 over an alleged plot backed by the United States to topple the government.

The move to ban the CNRP was part of a wider crackdown by Hun Sen on political opponents, NGOs, and the independent media that paved the way for the Cambodian People’s Party to win all 125 seats in the country’s July 2018 general election.

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