In the weeks since Hun Manet became prime minister of Cambodia, having essentially been groomed for and handed the position by his father, longtime autocrat Hun Sen, a series of news articles have questioned whether Hun Manet might be a reformer. A Reuters article asked: “Cambodia’s New Leader Hun Manet: Strongman or Reformer?” A piece on Channel News Asia, a leading Asian news channel based in Singapore, ran a segment after Hun Manet became prime minister, suggesting he could be a positive force for change and reform. (Though to be fair, the segment featured Professor Sophal Ear, one of the most knowledgeable Cambodia experts in the world. He was rightly cautious about what change Hun Manet might bring and suggested that Hun Sen could step back into power if he were unhappy with what Hun Manet was doing.) Other outlets have suggested that Hun Manet, simply by being new blood, could end Cambodia’s slide into outright authoritarianism and reverse some of the harsh, repressive policies enacted in recent years toward independent journalists, civil society, unions, and opposition political parties.
Yet there is no evidence, at least at this point, that Hun Manet plans to reform Cambodia. If anything, as I have noted in prior pieces, he may actually have to spread more graft around in order to keep Cambodia’s top ministers and tycoons on his side. He has shown little interest in bringing in technocrats or independent advisors that could guide a real transition away from authoritarianism, instead promoting some of the children of his father’s former top ministers.
His public appearances have been tightly controlled, and he has no clear rapport with the Cambodian people. With his army background, he is likely to lean even more than his father on the armed forces to enforce repression, though his father did create his own personal bodyguard unit that was often used for violence against opponents of the government. Still, if Hun Manet plans to use the army to crack down, it risks even greater violence than in recent years in Cambodia. In September, the prominent activist Ny Nak was beaten severely in the streets of Phnom Penh, and in the same month, a group of Cambodian activists were arrested for refusing to join the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
Hun Manet also shows no sign of letting up on the political opposition. At a speech at the United Nations General Assembly in September, he told the UNGA that Cambodia’s summer national elections were “free and fair” and “credible and just.” He added that the election was verified “by thousands of observers,” despite leading democracies declining to send observers, and the observers that came were often from non-democratic states.
These comments are absurd. The main opposition party was banned from the election, its leaders in exile or house arrest in Cambodia, so Hun Sen and Hun Manet’s Cambodian People’s Party won nearly every seat in the lower house of parliament, right up there with Saddam Hussein-style elections. There were several minor opposition parties allowed to run in the election, but they were only allowed to run because the CPP knew these parties had little support and would make no impact on the final results.
At the same UNGA speech, Hun Manet offered few signs that he would make any major changes in Cambodia. And he still seems, at times, directly under the control of his father. When Hun Manet proposed a program to raise a variety of taxes in Cambodia, many Cambodians were angered. Apparently, Hun Sen spoke with Hun Manet and told him to jettison the tax plan, which Hun Manet did. Overall, it is too early to suggest much will change in Cambodia.