PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — The son of longtime autocratic Cambodian leader Hun Sen was sworn in Tuesday as the country’s new prime minister, part of a generational change in top positions in the Southeast Asian nation.
Hun Manet, 45, won his first seat in the National Assembly in July elections and takes over from his father, who had been Asia’s longest serving leader with nearly four decades in power, after serving as Cambodia’s army chief.
He was approved by lawmakers unanimously in Parliament before being sworn in by the king and two Buddhist monks later in the day.
Even though he heads a government in which new faces make up about three-quarters of the Cabinet, most are the children of or are otherwise related to those they are replacing, and experts caution against expecting broad changes in the country where human rights have been under attack and dissent suppressed.
“There is not a big difference between the generations in political outlook, including in terms of how open or how competitive politics should be,” said Astrid Norén-Nilsson, a Cambodia expert at Sweden’s Lund University.
“The generational transition is designed to keep the power of the political-cum-business elite intact and perpetuate neopatrimonial arrangements,” she added.
In his acceptance speech to the National Assembly, Cambodia’s lower house of Parliament, Hun Manet said the examples set by his father and the outgoing ministers would be “permanent fixtures within our consciences and consciousness,” and thanked them for their confidence “entrusting us with this fateful mission to serve our nation.”
His Cabinet includes Tea Seiha, who will be replacing his father, Tea Banh, as minister of National Defense, and Sar Sokha, who is replacing his father, Sar Kheng, as minister of the Interior. Both are also to serve as deputy prime ministers.
“Hun Manet’s succession as prime minister of Cambodia is a two-penny farce that would be amusing if a country’s fate was not at stake,” said Sam Rainsy, a co-founder of the dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party who has been in self-imposed exile since 2016 to avoid prison for a defamation conviction along with a slew of other legal charges brought by the government.
“Lack of legitimacy is the automatic result of elections without risk,” Sam Rainsy said on X, formerly known as Twitter.
Hun Sen has progressively tightened his grip on power during his 38 years in office while also ushering in a free-market economy that raised the standards of living of many Cambodians.
At the same time, the gap between the rich and poor greatly widened under his leadership, deforestation spread at an alarming rate, and there was widespread land grabbing by his Cambodian allies and foreign investors.
He has also moved Cambodia politically steadily closer to China, which is currently involved in broadly expanding Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base, which Washington worries could give Beijing a strategically important military outpost on the Gulf of Thailand.
Hun Sen started his political life as a middle-ranking commander in the radical communist Khmer Rouge, which was blamed for the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians from starvation, illness and killings in the 1970s, before defecting to Vietnam.
When Vietnam ousted the Khmer Rouge from power in 1979, Hun Sen quickly became a senior member of the new Cambodian government installed by Vietnam and eventually helped bring an end to three decades of civil war.
By contrast, Hun Manet, like many of the incoming ministers, comes from a life of privilege and was educated in the West. He has a bachelor’s degree from the United States Military Academy West Point, a master’s degree from New York University and a doctorate from Bristol University in Britain, all in economics.
While the new government might not make drastic changes in policy, it is likely to set a different tone of political discourse, Norén-Nilsson said.
“This generation wants to relate differently to society at large than their parents’ generation of revolutionary fighters,” she said. “They want to be associated with positive political messages and to move away from and, if possible, even eliminate the sense of menace and threat of violence over time.”
As a start, Hun Manet in his speech outlined a wide range of goals for the next five years, including ensuring peace and stability and promoting economic growth, as well as strengthening social services and education.
He said the new government was also committed to promoting gender equality, sustainably managing natural resources, promoting climate resilient and low-carbon public investment and ensuring environmental sustainability.