A Tiger Rules the Mountain

The world's longest serving Prime Minister and Cambodia's pursuit of democracy

Hun Sen hands power to son

But becomes step closer to becoming a Cambodian god-king

Hun Sen has announced live on a national TV address that his eldest son, Hun Manet, will be appointed Prime Minister when the National Assembly opens following last Sunday’s election. Hun Sen will President of the Cambodian People’s Party and stand to become President of the Senate. The Senate President acts as Head of State when the King is out of the country, including signing laws.

More than half of Cambodians have only lived with Hun Sen as Prime Minister and many can still not believe he has chosen to hand over power now. Listen to my radio interview on Australian national radio below.

Sarah Hall  00:01

Cambodia’s long serving Prime Minister Hun Sen has announced he will step down after 38 years in the top job and hand over power to his son next month. Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party won the general election in a landslide on Sunday after his opposition was disqualified. So how can a supposedly elected official abdicate to his son? We’re joined now by Adjunct Research Fellow Gordon Conochie from Latrobe University who has worked with UNICEF and the World Bank in Cambodia and wrote a book on Hun Sen – A Tiger Rules the Mountain. Gordon, thank you for your time. Well, Hun Sen just won an election. Why is he stepping down?

Gordon Conochie  00:49

He wants to make sure that he is in a strong position to support his son in the first few years of his son’s prime ministerialship. And Hun Sen is only 70. Despite being in power for 30 years, is physically well, mentally well, and he’s going to become president of the Senate, and what that means is that because he’s still got positions of influence, and he’s still going to be powerful, nobody’s going to move against his son, as long as he’s around. So by making sure that the transition happens early, it really guards against any internal challenges from within the Cambodian People’s Party.

Sarah Hall  01:27

How has Hun Sen stayed in power for nearly 40 years? It’s an incredible amount of time.

Gordon Conochie  01:35

Yeah, and I guess there’s two reasons for this. One, is he’s actually got a constituency of support, he is actually quite popular because he’s managed to achieve remarkable economic development in Cambodia. Its GDP has increased by over 1,000% in the last 30 years. There has been peace and stability and for a country that’s experienced the Khmer Rouge and 70s. Civil War throughout the 80s, then for many people, that is something to be treasured. However, there’s another side of the story, and that is being able to keep control because he’s effectively crushed democracy within Cambodia. He has banned opposition parties, excluded them from elections. He’s closed free media. He’s restricted the rights of trade unions. He’s eroded free speech. Those pillars of democracy have been crumbling.

Sarah Hall  02:31

So who is Hun Manet his son and now the future prime minister of Cambodia?

Gordon Conochie  02:37

Yeah, so he’s the eldest son of and he’s currently the commander of army in Cambodia. He’s a graduate of West Point. He did a Masters of economics at New York University and got PhD in Economics at Bristol University in England. So he certainly comes from a different generation. Education far surpasses anything that his father experienced. And many people hope that the combination of Western education a younger person, with a different life experience will lead him to being maybe more attuned to human rights and democracy those Western concepts that you know, we we adhere to. However, I think that’s based more on hope than than evidence and he’s actually talked – and I’ve talked to people in the CPP who have worked with them – he’s talked about Singapore being the model for Cambodia. Singapore, obviously very economically prosperous, well governed, well run country, but it’s not very democratic. It’s actually only ranked number 70 in the global democracy index so I think the son, people look at maybe potentially creating some change, but really, is probably going to be more of the same in terms of the kind of authoritarian rule and the emphasis on peace and stability and economic growth, rather than democracy and human rights.

Sarah Hall  04:12

It’s interesting that you mentioned democracy there. How can a democratically elected leader hand on his position to his son? I mean, it’s it’s not quite like he’s a prince inheriting a throne here.

Gordon Conochie  04:26

That’s correct. And they’re parliamentary system is not too dissimilar to Australia’s. So the national election just there on Sunday, people voted for their representatives to come from a party and the party and the National Assembly, the largest party in the National Assembly, appoint the Prime Minister. So Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party, they had previously in 2021, agreed that after Hun Sen, Hun Manrt would be successor. There was an internal vote that took place. So because Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party won the election and want it easily because it was no competition, then they know that they will be able to appoint a successor, who will become Hun Manet, so it will follow that procedure.

Sarah Hall  05:24

Yeah, certainly interesting times ahead, Gordon, thank you for your time today. Thank you. That’s Gordon Conochie. There from Latrobe University. He’s also written a book on Hun Sen called A Tiger Rules the Mountain.


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