Although he has vowed to stay in power for another decade or more, signs are growing that 60-year-old Prime Minister Hun Sen is grooming his children to inherit the reins of power.
Clean-cut, cheerful and wildly popular with ruling party voters, US-educated Hun Many is the prime minister’s youngest son and the first of his five children to seek political office.
The cherubic 30-year-old is already a top official in his father’s Cabinet and head of the ruling party’s youth wing.
Now he is running for a seat in parliament in the southern province of Kampong Speu in Sunday’s general election.
From politics to the media, military and the police, Hun Sen has positioned his children strategically to ensure the family’s grip on power outlasts its patriarch’s career, experts say.
Other sons generals
His two other sons—both now generals—recently received military promotions.
“It is increasingly clear that Hun Sen is creating a dynasty,” said Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.
“All of the ingredients for this are currently in place, as Hun Sen has placed each of his sons in key sectors of Cambodian society,” he said.
“The CPP (Cambodian People’s Party) leadership will likely transfer to Hun Sen’s sons in the future and thus will make internal reform of the CPP unlikely, or at best, difficult,” he added.
Nephew police chief
It is not just Hun Sen who is positioning his children and other relatives—his nephew-in-law is chief of police—in positions of power.
Over the last decade a web of marriages between the offspring of ruling party officials has created a next generation elite heavily connected by blood and business.
With the top leaders of his party—which swept to power after spearheading a Vietnamese invasion to topple the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979—mostly aged in their 60s, dynastic politics is coming into play.
At least seven children of senior ruling party officials are running in Sunday’s election.
“Nepotism is part and parcel of our political culture,” said political expert Lao Mong Hay, a former researcher for the Asian Human Rights Commission.
“We are witnessing the formation of a feudal society,” he said, adding that the consolidation of control over land ownership since the 1960s was a stark example of the rising power of a tiny elite.
Catching up with PH
“We’re catching up with what has happened in the Philippines. The rich and the powerful join forces to control the economy,” he added.
In the Philippines before martial law, rich families like the Lopezes had one of its own as Vice President. Years after the fall of dictator Ferdinand Marcos, his son and namesake is now a senator, his daughter Imee a governor of Ilocos Norte and his wife, Imelda, a representative of the province.
Two sons of deposed President Joseph Estrada, now mayor of Manila, are senators. His daughter is married to a Lopez. When Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was President, her two sons and a brother-in-law were members of the House of Representatives. One son is still a congressman, and she is a House member but in detention on election sabotage charges.
President Aquino himself is the son of Ninoy Aquino, a former opposition senator assassinated in 1983, and the late former President Cory Aquino whose family owns the vast sugar estate Hacienda Luisita.
Chip off old block
Across the Philippines, many elected officials, whose families are also engaged in business, are close relatives, perpetuating their hold on power.
If his public pronouncements on the campaign trail are anything to go by, Hun Many is a chip off the old block.
From warning of civil war if the CPP loses, to vague campaign promises “to serve the people by studying what CPP leaders have done so far,” he is sticking to his father’s script—and it seems to be working.
“Hun Sen led the country to this state of development even though he had little education. So his children, educated in the best universities in the world, will achieve even more,” supporter Hay Vanna told AFP.
“They will follow their father’s path and lead the country to prosperity,” the 59-year-old housewife said at a recent 15,000-strong rally led by Hun Many in Phnom Penh.
The CPP denies allegations of nepotism, arguing that children of the ruling elite are simply the most qualified candidates for the job. It is certainly true that most were educated abroad at great expense.
But from fatal traffic accidents to drunken brawls, many children of the rich and powerful have not put their advantages to good use—which is where Hun Sen’s children stand out, said independent political analyst Chea Vannath.
“People attack the prime minister all the time… but they never attack the children. The children are like spotless, flawless,” she told AFP.
“He has five children and none of them got criticized by the public… They love to hate the father. They love to hate the mother—but not the children.”
In contrast, Hun Sen’s nephew Hun To has been reportedly accused of heroin trafficking and money laundering by Australian authorities, although no formal charges have been filed.
‘Out of touch’
For the opposition, the rise of the next generation CPP is a sign of how out of touch the ruling party is with changing Cambodian society, and poses no real threat to them, said opposition politician Son Chhay.
“The young people have been positioned to take over from their parents, but they’re not qualified,” he said.
“People say because they’re educated overseas they’re maybe better than their parents and they won’t behave like a dictator. But that’s questionable logic,” he added, pointing to the sons of late Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and North Korea’s Kim Jong-il as examples.
Ultimately “it will benefit the opposition because, like in any society, when good people cannot participate in the political process fairly, when only the children of the rich and powerful are allowed to, this creates resentment and the whole system is not happy.”