Belying his low-key public persona, leaked US Embassy cables released this week portray Prime Minister Hun Sen’s eldest son, the RCAF commander Hun Manet, as a tough contrarian on Thai-Cambodian relations, sometimes defying the embassy’s expectations.
In an August 2008 cable released by WikiLeaks about outgoing US Ambassador Joseph Mussomeli’s farewell lunch with Mr Manet, who then held the rank of brigadier general, the pair traded their thoughts on Cambodia’s evolving border relations with Thailand following the incursion of Thai troops into land surrounding Preah Vihear temple.
Only the month before, when it was backed by a friendly—if weak—government in Bangkok under pressure from its own military, Cambodia had successfully lobbied the World Heritage Committee to add Preah Vihear to its list of historic sites.
According to the cable, Mr Manet expressed concern that Cambodia’s peaceful response to the Thai incursions was sending Bangkok the wrong signal.
“He gave his view that Cambodian patience and its refusal to use force have been interpreted by Thailand as weakness,” the ambassador wrote in the cable.
“Manet noted that the deployment of Thai troops around Preah Vihear was recently followed by deployments of more Thai forces in other disputed terrain…and that this may have been a direct result of Cambodia not taking a tough stance,” the cable continued.
In the exchange, Mr Mussomeli reminded Mr Manet that Thailand had just agreed to a withdrawal, in principle, of its forces.
“In principle,” the premier’s son replied to the ambassador.
“The Thai, [Mr Manet] insisted, see no downside in resisting a peaceful solution and they can use the tension with Cambodia to distract their citizens from more pressing domestic concerns,” the ambassador recounted in the cable.
Mr Mussomeli urged patience and advised Mr Manet that Cambodia’s thoughts of taking its grievances to the UN Security Council were premature.
At the end of the cable, though, the embassy sounded surprised at Mr Manet’s tough posture regarding Thailand.
“Given the recent downplaying of the Preah Vihear issue in the Cambodian press and the efforts of both governments to agree—even if only in principle—to withdraw military forces from the disputed territory, Manet’s comments were somewhat unexpected,” the ambassador observed.
In the end, the two sides never did withdraw their troops. Two months later, a brief clash left two Cambodian soldiers dead, and a new, military-friendly government soon took over in Bangkok. Thai and Cambodian troops have remained stationed at the border since, and have engaged numerous times in ever greater deadly clashes.
Meanwhile, the premier’s eldest son has continued his rise through the military ranks, fueling speculation of his grooming for top leadership.
Mr Manet was promoted to major general in January, only months after being named deputy commander of the Prime Minister’s Bodyguard Unit and deputy chairman of the RCAF Joint Staff. He was already commander of the National Counterterrorism Task Force.
Major General Manet graduated from the US Military Academy of West Point in 1999, the first Cambodian to do so. He then went on to earn a Masters degree at New York University.
During a graduation ceremony in Phnom Penh yesterday, Mr Hun Sen commented on that scholarship and another US scholarship for his son Hun Many. Mr Many received a $175,000 scholarship from the US’ National Defense University to attend its 2009-2010 academic year.
“I did not ask to have them go, but the US wanted them to go there,” the prime minister said. “I want to verify this, because as a habit, I don’t ask for it. If you give or not, it is OK. Anyway, I thank them for letting my sons study,” he added.
(Additional reporting by Phorn Bopha)