The World’s Longest Ruling Prime Minister Has Backed His Son to Take Over

But the 69-year-old Southeast Asian leader has plans to stay in power for several years yet.
hun sen hun manet
CAMBODIAN PRIME MINISTER HUN SEN DELIVERS A SPEECH IN PHNOM PENH, FEB. 2021. PHOTO: AP/HENG SINITH

Addressing the country he has ruled for 36 years, marking the prestigious occasion of the inauguration of a $300 million sewage treatment facility, Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen confirmed that he will back his oldest son Hun Manet to succeed him.

Hun Sen’s announcement on Thursday gave perhaps the strongest indication yet of his plan to establish a political dynasty, even as he said his oldest son would have to win a democratic election to take over as prime minister when the time comes.

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“I declare today that I support my son to be my successor as prime minister, but through election, not by any other means,” Hun Sen was quoted by local media as saying, referring to Hun Manet, currently the deputy commander-in-chief of the Cambodian military.

Who will succeed the aging Hun Sen, the world’s longest serving prime minister having risen to the post in 1985, has long been a point of discussion. In a country that has descended into de-facto one-party rule in recent years, Hun Sen’s son taking the post would keep power within the family and dampen hopes of a reformist successor to the Cambodian strongman. 

At the inaugural event in Preah Sihanouk province, Hun Sen strongly hinted that he wouldn’t allow any of his contemporaries to follow him.

Lt. Gen. Hun Manet, son of Prime Minister Hun Sen, at a ceremony in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in June 2020. Photo: AP/Heng Sinith

Lt. Gen. Hun Manet, son of Prime Minister Hun Sen, at a ceremony in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in June 2020. Photo: AP/Heng Sinith

“Now try thinking with me… You’re 70. I’m 69,” Hun Sen, from the rostrum, told Minister of the Interior Sar Kheng, seated behind him onstage. Sar Kheng, a senior figure in Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) who is also Deputy Prime Minister, has long been touted as a potential reformist, one who might rule with a softer touch in the increasingly authoritarian country. 

“Suppose we continue our journey together until 2028—Kheng, you’ll be 79 and I’ll be 78,” the prime minister continued. “If Kheng were to take on the prime minister job, I might as well continue to be prime minister—isn’t it more convenient?”

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It was said in jest and it elicited awkward laughter from the audience, but it echoed Hun Sen’s June 2020 speech in which he said that, though he intended to rule for another 10 years, he was grooming the 44-year-old Hun Manet for a leadership role.

Hun Sen’s CPP has governed the country virtually unopposed since 2017, when the Supreme Court dissolved the country’s only credible opposition, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, in a politically motivated trial.

With this, Hun Manet would only need his father’s selection to lead the CPP to secure a sure path to the country’s top post, with success at national polls virtually guaranteed.

Hun Sen’s grip on power has been marred by allegations of human rights violations towards dissidents and members of the opposition. Observers have called the crackdown on dissent a “witch hunt,” with the jailing last month of a teenager with autism over critical posts he made on social media seen as a low point for freedom of speech in the country.

Follow JC Gotinga on Twitter.