Younger Generation of Leaders Mark New Era for Cambodia

Prime Minister Hun Sen has 15 days remaining as the Cambodian premier, as a new chapter in Cambodia’s history is written and a generation of young leaders prepare to take over the reins
Hun Manet at a rally in Phnom Penh. Kiripost/Siv Channa
Hun Manet at a rally in Phnom Penh. Kiripost/Siv Channa

Cambodia is gearing up to enter a new era after King Norodom Sihamoni officially appointed Hun Manet as the next Prime Minister, paving the way for a new generation of leaders.

On the morning of August 7, the King issued a royal decree handing over the premiership to Manet. The next step will see Manet form a government and seek approval from the National Assembly on August 22.

In a Telegram message, Hun Sen confirmed the historic moment. “The King has issued a royal decree appointing a new Prime Minister to lead the country after I decided to step down to give a chance to the successors to lead,” he wrote.

“Looking back through time, I was the youngest prime minister (32 years old) and the longest-serving in the world,” Hun Sen added as he entered the last 15 days of his more than 38-year tenure as the Cambodian premier.

He said on August 22, when he officially hands over the reins to his eldest son, he will be “promoted as father of the Prime Minister”. However, he stated he will continue serving the country in various elite roles.

“It is not the end yet,” he said. “I will continue serving in other positions for at least until 2033, which I will then serve for more than half a century.”

Hun Manet: Cambodia’s Next PM

Hopes New PM Will Prioritize Development and Society

Commitment to Lead Cambodia

Manet pledged in a post on his official Facebook page his commitment to leading the country, while protecting peace and social stability, as well as promoting continued development.

“I and dignitaries of the 7th Legislature of the National Assembly in the government, are committed to fulfilling the national mission with heroism, honesty, and responsibility, in order to serve the nation and Cambodian people,” he said.

“In particular, to safeguard the nation's independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity, the throne, and the country's constitutional monarchy, peace, and social stability. Also, to advance the nation's development and the quality of life for its citizens, and to raise the country's prestige internationally.”

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Entering A New Era

In addition to a new premier, the Cambodian cabinet will see a major shift, with ministerial and other high-ranking positions handed over to a younger generation of leadership.

This is a factor that has been lauded by the business community. “Cambodia has a predominantly young population, therefore, having a younger leadership in power is positive,” said Louis Cristol, who operates a hardware business in the capital.

“I think this will be positive for strengthening foreign direct investment, and also further developing the domestic workforce while also expanding the skill set of both Cambodians and diversifying the economy.”

In addition, Manet and many members of the cabinet-in-waiting are internationally educated. Manet’s esteemed education has seen him study at the prestigious United States Military Academy at West Point, where he became the first Cambodian graduate.

He has also earned a Master’s in Economics at New York University and a PhD in the same subject at the UK’s University of Bristol. This has equipped him with strong English language skills.

When approached by Kiripost, some members of the Western international business community said they are remaining “cautiously optimistic” about the transition. While refraining from making any official comments, the shift towards a younger cabinet was generally praised as being progressive.

“We welcome having a younger parliamentary representation and seeing more women at senior levels. This is good for a rapidly developing country and is in keeping with Cambodia’s rapid growth,” one business person said, asking to remain anonymous.

Hun Manet: A Profile

The eldest of five siblings, Manet, 45, was born in Memot, Kampong Cham under the Khmer Rouge regime. He was educated in Phnom Penh and joined the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) in 1995, marking the start of a lengthy military career.

In 1999, he graduated from West Point, and went on to study at New York University earning his economics’ Master’s degree in 2002, and a PhD in Economics from Bristol University in 2009.

Upon his return to Cambodia, he climbed the ranks of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF). His roles include Commander of Hun Sen’s Bodyguard Unit, commander of counter-terrorim, and deputy-commander in chief. His current role is four-star general and RACF commander.

On January 8, 2006, Manet married Pich Chanmony, the daughter of secretary of state at the Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training, Pich Sophoan. They have two daughters and one son.

Hun Manet’s Personality

According to the book, ‘PM’s Eldest Son: Hun Manet’s Journey To Prime Ministerial Post’ by Chhay Sophal, before Manet was appointed to be Prime Minister, Hun Sen told the author that he believes Manet will display different leadership traits from his own due to his inexperience.

“In the meantime, when there is a problem, he [Manet] still needs to observe and consider first, which requires more time, and leads to a delay in making decisions. Yet, some points are also similar to mine, in terms of how to analyze and evaluate the situation and how to speak,” he told the author.

“Nevertheless, let’s wait and see after he becomes Prime Minister to see his way of making decisions and giving orders. Well, we will check at that time. If he is not agile enough to make decisions, that could become his weakness,” he added.

When he was young, Manet dreamed of becoming a pilot. However, he followed another path in the military, and serving as an economist and politician. In addition to other military skills, he is capable of parachute jumping, fast-rope jumping, and rappelling from helicopters.

Manet told the author, “I can say, the nature and interest of being in the army have been in my mind since I was a child because my father was in the army, and many other people around me, such as my uncle and my father’s bodyguards, were all soldiers.

“Furthermore, lots of the toys I played with as a child were military soldiers, vehicles, or tanks, which I asked my mother to buy for me from the markets, or those I made from paper by myself. Later, when foreign movies were allowed to be imported, I liked watching movies about the military, such as special forces operations, commando forces, etc.”

Manet went on to tell the author, “Most of my interests as mentioned above are related to the army, although there was a time I was also interested in a career as a fighter pilot, which was inspired by foreign movies and I thought it was great.”

As cited in Manet’s biography, similar to his father, he loves Somlor Korko, Somlor Bro Hae, stir-fried water spinach, fried ginger, dried fish, and salted-grilled fish.

Manet also enjoys reading philosophy, history, military, and economics books. When he was in school, he enjoyed playing football, tennis, and martial arts, achieving a black belt in taekwondo and a brown belt in karate.

Hun Manet’s Approach to International Affairs

According to Sebastian Strangio, author of ‘Hun Sen’s Cambodia’ and ‘In the Dragon’s Shadow’, the ascension of Hun Manet’s to office will create an opening for a diplomatic reset between Cambodia and Western governments, from which both sides would clearly benefit.

“As well as heralding the first change in Cambodia’s leadership since the early 1990s – and one shouldn’t underestimate the extent to which Hun Sen’s longevity has complicated such a reset – Manet has the benefits of greater familiarity with Western culture,” Strangio told Kiripost.

He added that the fact Manet speaks fluent English could make him a better international spokesman for the country.

“However, a possible reset will be complicated by the nature of the political system over which Hun Manet will preside and the overriding need to preserve the Cambodian People’s Party’s (CPP) position of primacy in Cambodian politics,” Strangio imbibed.

He said for relations to strengthen between Cambodia and Western countries, Western governments must be willing to “acknowledge the realities inside Cambodia and adopt a more pragmatic policy toward the country” – an unlikely move in the short-term.

“While there is a good argument to be made for more a pragmatic Western policy toward Cambodia, I ultimately think that many Western capitals will continue to view it as a country where there is little cost to foregrounding human rights, either because Cambodia is perceived as strategically marginal, or because it has already “chosen” China,” Strangio noted.

“Indeed, Cambodia’s status in this regard may become even more important as the US and other Western countries make accommodations with equally oppressive but more strategically important countries in the region, such as Vietnam.”

For this reason, Strangio believes that China will remain Cambodia’s partner of choice. “Both by virtue of its [China] wealth and proximity, and its willingness to let the CPP shape Cambodian politics to its liking,” he said.

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