Unlike His Father, Hun Manet is Not in a Legacy Trap
Date:31 July 2023
By Mr Kavi Chongkittavorn, Senior Communications Advisor: 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 country as the Southeast Asian nation with the youngest 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 an influential 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.
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.
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. 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, particularly 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.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are purely those of the authors and may not in any circumstances be regarded as stating an official position of the Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia.
(Photo credit: Khmer Times)