For nearly four decades, Cambodia's prime minister, Hun Sen, maintained his grip on power by perpetuating a simple conceit: the country needed him and as such he could never retire.
On Tuesday, Mr Hun Sen, 71, handed over the post of prime minister to his son, Gen Hun Manet, a 45-year-old graduate of the US Military Academy at West Point and chief of the Cambodian army. The move caps a generational shift so rare that three out of four Cambodians have previously only known Mr. Hun Sen as their leader.
“For many Cambodians, witnessing political change is a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” said Chhengpor Aun, a visiting scholar at the International Institute for Strategic Studies who specializes in Cambodian politics.
Mr. Hun Sen, one of the world's longest-serving prime ministers, has made it clear that he will not fully withdraw from Cambodian politics. He remains the leader of Cambodia's leading People's Party and has stated that he will remain in office as Senate President until 2033. In June, he said that even after stepping down as leader of the Cambodian People's Party, he would “still control politics” with the CPP
However, the transfer of power has major implications for the future of Cambodia, Southeast Asia, and the United States and China, which are vying for influence in the region. One of the main questions surrounding Mr Hun Manet is whether he might be open to closer cooperation with the West as he spearheads a generational shift that will see the internationally educated children of the current ministers in power for the first time.
Many Cambodian activists have warned that history abounds with Western-educated children of autocrats – from North Korea's Kim Jong-un to Syria's Bashar al Assad – who went on to rule harder than their fathers. The opposition does not expect Mr Hun Manet to be any different.
Speaking to the National Assembly on Tuesday, Mr Hun Manet said it was “necessary to continue to govern the country peacefully and safely, sustain development and carry out reforms in all areas”.
Mr Hun Sen told reporters it was “an ignorant statement” to claim he would run the country through a deputy, even though he is resigning his post and handing over power to his son.
When Mr. Hun Sen became prime minister 38 years ago, the country was recovering from the devastation of the Khmer Rouge movement. He ushered in an era of strongman rule that included the eradication of opposition parties and independent media. In July, the CPP claimed it had won a “landslide victory” in elections that international observers described as staged and unfair.
But in a region where political dynasties are rife, few Cambodians seem to have a problem with Mr. Hun Manet taking power Much of his father's rule was marked by 30 years of accelerating economic growth and a period of uninterrupted stability.
As the leader, Mr. Hun Sen welcomed China, which he described as Cambodia's “most trusted friend”. Beijing, Cambodia's largest trading partner, provided loans to finance airports, roads and other infrastructure projects.
In turn, Mr Hun Sen's government repeatedly blocked criticism of China at meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, frustrating members like the Philippines and Vietnam, both embroiled in territorial disputes with Beijing over the South China Sea. In July, Cambodia broke ground on a naval base that the United States has warned could be a Chinese military outpost overseas. Both Phnom Penh and Beijing have denied the allegation.
For about a decade it has been clear that Mr. Hun Sen would pass the baton to his eldest son. “This is our preparation for our country's long-term stability,” Mr. Hun Sen said when making the announcement on July 26.
He added that it was important for a new, younger cabinet to “take on his duties early” and that his son “would not inherit that role without a legitimate process”. Although Mr Hun Manet has never held elected office, he ran in the recent elections as a candidate for MPs, which his father said made him eligible for appointment as prime minister. (Mr. Hun Manet's youngest brother, Hun Many, becomes Minister for Public Service.)
“This is a significant waiver for me, but this waiver will ensure our people's happiness,” Mr. Hun Sen said.
During the election, Mr. Hun Manet was often seen taking selfies and showing finger hearts with voters. People who have interacted with him say he is down to earth and open to new ideas.
“At least he doesn't expect me to kowtow,” said Ou Virak, the president of Future Forum, a think tank in Cambodia focused on public policy. He added that this was a dramatic departure from his interactions with officials in Mr Hun Sen's government.
Still, analysts think it's unlikely Mr Hun Manet will stray too far from his father's policies. In January he called on opposition parties to stop engaging in “insult and slander” campaigns, which some saw as a veiled threat. Few Cambodians expect him to dismantle the patronage networks his father built, or crack down on the corruption, deforestation and land grabs rife in this country of 16.6 million people.
Even as he tries to recalibrate ties with the West to gain influence at a time of great superpower rivalries, he will not let China down, said Kalyan Ky, former president of the Cambodia-Australia-New Zealand Exchange Mission and an acquaintance with the new prime minister.
Mr. Hun Manet “was very receptive to the idea of connecting with the West while making China happy,” Ms. Ky added.
When asked in June if his son would rule differently, Mr. Hun Sen replied: “In what way? Any such divergence means disturbing the peace and undoing the achievements of the older generation.”
Like his father, Mr. Hun Manet is likely to focus on economic growth. Tourism has not fully recovered since the coronavirus pandemic and Cambodia's economy is heavily dependent on China, where a sluggish real estate market points to a possible economic crisis.
But any change in a country with a ruler who boasts of being in power “14,099 days” is likely to bring hope.
Mr. Hun Manet was the first Cambodian to graduate from West Point in 1999. He later earned a Masters from New York University and a PhD from the University of Bristol in England, both in Economics.
He quickly rose through the ranks of the Cambodian military and is now a four-star general and Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces. In 2020 he became the head of the youth department of the CPP.
“Parents said he was the smartest of them all,” said Julie Mehta, who co-wrote a biography of Mr Hun Sen with her husband Harish Mehta.
Mr. Hun Manet “did important lessons from his exposure to the American way of life, which emphasizes the rights and responsibilities of the individual,” said Mr. Mehta, who, along with his wife, Mr. Hun Sen, Bun Rany, Mr. Hun Sen's wife and Mr. Hun Manet for the book.
When he was in his 20s, Mr Hun Manet told the Mehtas that he liked the fact that in the United States “people can have the freedom and opportunity to do whatever they want, provided their actions do not disturb others.” and do not break any laws.”
“This freedom creates an environment that encourages innovation and creativity,” he said.
He added that he was frustrated with the negative reports about Cambodia, “mainly from Western media”, and that the West was too focused on “problems and less on positive developments in Cambodia”.
An untried leader, Mr. Hun Manet has yet to prove he can withstand the challenges of political rivals. But his father has already reassured Cambodians that if his son's life is in danger or “does not live up to expectations,” Mr Hun Sen said, he would return as prime minister.
Sun Narin contributed to the coverage.