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Analysis: Succession in focus but Cambodia strongman staying put

Prime Minister Hun Sen waves to the media as he arrives for the ASEAN –
China summit, happening on the sides of the 17th ASEAN Summit in Hanoi
October 29, 2010. The 17th ASEAN summit runs from October 28 to 30.
Credit: Reuters/Kham

(Reuters) – When
a young soldier was made a two-star general and infantry commander this
month at the age of only 33, some in Cambodia saw a political dynasty
taking shape.

The rapid rise of
Major-General Hun Manet has drawn attention to a topic rarely discussed
in Cambodia: who will succeed his father, long-serving Prime Minister
Hun Sen.

Comparisons have been made between the rise of Hun Manet and that of Kim Jong-un, the son of ailing North Korean
leader Kim Jong-il, promoted from obscurity in September to be a
general and politburo member in what was seen as the unveiling of a

But analysts say the
prospect of Hun Sen stepping aside is inconceivable right now and it’s
too soon to make that link. Rather they see Hun Manet’s promotion as a
sign of both the deep-rooted nepotism in Cambodia and the unrelenting
efforts of Hun Sen to consolidate power for many years to come.

say Hun Sen’s plan is to hold on in office for as long as he can and
give his son a chance to amass as much power in the military as
possible,” said Tony Kevin, an Australian academic and former
ambassador to Cambodia in the 1990s.

pushing 60, and for a leader in Asia, that’s pretty young, really. With
his son as a senior military general, he has an insurance policy and
it’s understandable he’d want that. But if this is part of a dynastic
plan — it’s too soon to tell now.”

political analysts in Cambodia believe Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge
guerrilla, is privately concerned that a challenge to his 26-year rule
could one day emerge, not from his political opponents but from within
his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) or among a powerful and growing crop
of local tycoons.

Sen’s firm hand and pro-business policies are credited with attracting
foreign investment that has put Cambodia on a steady course of growth
and stability after decades of brutal civil war turned the former
French colony into a failed state.

successful blend of populism, nationalism and cronyism has earned him
the overwhelming support of the electorate and kept business elites
onside, but analysts say any shift in that dynamic could one day lead
to his undoing.

Enter Hun Manet,
the eldest and most privileged of Hun Sen’s six children, whose
promotion to a plum military post now makes a coup d’etat against his
father seem far less likely.

Manet has kept a low profile since graduating from West Point military
academy in the United States and then getting an economics doctorate
from Britain’s Bristol University — a far cry from his father’s
rudimentary education at a rural monastery.

Sen has defended his son’s promotion as in accordance with the rules.
“He has been military age for 16 years already,” he said. “The military
is obliged to promote in accordance with its internal framework.”

But many in Cambodia think Hun Manet is being groomed to one day take over the reins of power.

an old saying that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts
absolutely,” said Son Soubert, a prominent political commentator and
adviser to Cambodia’s King Norodom Sihamoni.

“The question is whether Mr. Hun Manet …
will be accepted by all the military’s high-ranking officials and
factions within the CPP. This kind of kin succession may not lead to
the stability required to attract much-needed foreign investment.”

say there are a number of potential successors within the CPP and it
would be wrong to assume Hun Manet, who was already deputy chief of his
father’s bodyguard unit and head of counter-terrorism in Cambodia, is
the favoured candidate.

None would find it easy to challenge a political warrior like Hun Sen, who says he will rule until the day he dies.

say he has leant on the judiciary to silence opponents and used his
party’s parliamentary majority to push through laws aimed at stifling
dissent and muzzling the media.

His rivals have paid a heavy price. Opposition leader Sam Rainsy has gone into exile to avoid jail.

authoritarianism has been largely tolerated by the public while living
standards improved thanks to economic growth, rural development and a
reduction in poverty, factors that make another CPP win likely when the
next election takes place in 2013.

see no real threats or challenges to Hun Sen in the next few years,”
said Ian Bryson, a Singapore-based regional analyst for Control Risks.

happens quickly in Cambodia. We’re in the middle of a parliamentary
term, the government has survived the (global) economic crisis and an
inflation bubble and there are no security issues, and that says a lot
for his government’s stability.”

the retired Australian diplomat, said political change could be
expected only if Hun Sen failed to keep CPP members and Cambodia’s new
moneyed elite onside.

“He knows
the nature of politics in Cambodia, the alliances with big money, and
he runs the dominant party with no serious opposition,” Kevin said. “As
long as he gives these groups power and the freedom to make money, he
should be fine.”

(Additional reporting by Martin Petty; Editing by Alan Raybould)


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