In Hun Manet’s Cambodia, It Is the Perception of Change That Matters

The country’s new prime minister is bound to the system created by his father. But for some foreign governments, it is enough that there is a new face at the top.

The vice of world politics is to judge a leader’s actions by their reputation, rather than the other way around. Perhaps because Hun Manet had never held a political or elected office before becoming Cambodia’s prime minister in August, and was so veiled in his father’s shadow as to be almost unperceivable, one could only judge him on his reputation. But he has now been in charge for two months and we’re already seeing much continuity: opposition leaders jailed, independent newspapers threatened with closure, activists beaten on the streets of Phnom Penh by hired thugs, etc.

Naturally, this has led to the opinion that the vast generational succession conducted by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) this summer, which saw almost the entire old guard resign and hand over power to a younger generation, mostly their children, was entirely a cosmetic change. The same system remains, only now with ministers in their forties rather than their seventies. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch has argued: “Hun Manet is the dictatorial version of ‘old wine in a new bottle’ and no one should be fooled that his government will be any better than what we saw under his father’s oppressive rule. Cambodian officials and their allies in the international community who are trying to spin that Hun Manet is a kinder, gentler version of his father simply don’t have any facts on their side.”

Joshua Kurlantzick, of the Council of Foreign Relations, wrote earlier this month that 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.” Indeed, Hun Sen, who ruled the country between 1985 and August of this year, remains president of the ruling party, will next year become acting head of state as Senate President, and still dictates government policy from behind the scenes.

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