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Cambodia leader set to hand over power to US-educated son in upcoming election

Cambodia head of miliary and West Point-educated Hun Manet is set to succeed his father Hun Sen as Cambodia’s Prime Minister, a position held by his father since 1985, in the upcoming nationwide election held this Sunday, July 23.

TIME reported in May that the US State Department considers the upcoming Cambodian election to be “neither free nor fair.” According to ABC News, though there will be eighteen political parties on the ballot, only Hun Sen’s Cambodia People’s Party has a viable path to victory after the liberal opposition Candlelight Party was disqualified on a ‘technicality.’

Hun Manet attended primary and secondary education in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, prior to joining the Cambodian Armed Forces and moving to the United States to attend West Point in 1995. After graduating in 1999, he attended New York University and the University of Bristol to earn a master’s and PhD in economics respectively. During his PhD, the younger Hun was appointed commander of the National Counter-Terrorism Special Forces in 2008.

Hun Sen will keep running for Sunday’s election, while his son expects victory in his race to become a member of Parliament for Phnom Penh. If his father steps down, Hun Manet needs to be a member of Parliament to succeed him as Prime Minister.

In 2021, the Cambodia People’s Party voted unanimously to endorse Hun Manet as the party’s future candidate for Prime Minister after the elder Hun, as reported by the Khmer Times. With the party expected to win 104 seats, or 83.2% the legislature according to internal projections by the Cambodian People’s Party described in the Phnom Penh Post, the party will very likely be able to confirm Hun Manet as PM when his father steps down.

On Friday, July 21, Hun Manet greeted his supporters before a procession to mark the end of the party’s election campaign, at which he posed for selfies in an athletic polo and a mesh baseball cap, as per ABC News. The look is a contrast to his usual preference for military uniforms, worn in his capacity as commander of the Royal Cambodian Army.

The NGO Human Rights Watch describes Cambodians as subject to “draconian laws, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, and judicial harassment, including politically motivated mass trials against over 100 opposition members and dozens of human rights defenders.” Hun Sen’s government was stated to be “curtailing free speech, privacy rights, media freedoms, peaceful assembly, and civic space.”

Hun Sen started his political career as one of the Khmer Rouge (Red Khmer), a name given to the members of the Communist Party of Kampuchea and by extension their government of Cambodia (then called Democratic Kampuchea) from 1974 to 1979.

Before it was toppled by a Vietnamese invasion launched in 1978, the Khmer Rouge perpetrated the Cambodian genocide, resulting in the deaths of nearly a quarter of the country’s population. Hun Sen defected to the pro-Vietnamese side a year before the invasion, fighting in the invasion.

He rose to the premiership in 1985, appointed by the then-one-party National Assembly, and has held the top posts in the country ever since.

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