For a man who had vowed to retire by the age of 90, Hun Sen’s abrupt decision to step down this month, barely a few weeks after winning a national election and after almost four decades in power, seemed to arrive a tad early.
Samdech Akka Moha Sena Padei Techo Hun Sen – the lengthy title equivalent to Supreme Lord – turned 71 in early August, but has now handed the reins to his son and heir, Hun Manet, as Cambodia’s next prime minister.
But this is not the only regional power transition.
Thailand also has a new prime minister. Last week, former leader Thaksin Shinawatra finally landed in Thailand after years of exile, the same day real estate tycoon Srettha Thavisin from the Pheu Thai, the political party he backs, was named Thailand’s prime minister. This came almost two decades after Thaksin was removed in a 2006 coup, while another coup in 2014 saw his sister Yingluck ousted.
Thaksin’s return to serve a jail sentence on corruption charges is seen as a quid pro quo for Thavisin and the Pheu Thai to take power. Thaksin, 74, spent hours in jail on the evening of 22 August but was later moved to a Bangkok hospital due to health concerns.
Pheu Thai had won second place in the general election in May, losing to Gen-Z’s favourite party, Move Forward, which campaigned on a platform to reform the role of the military and monarchy. But Move Forward had been unable to secure a coalition to take power.
What is similar between the “new” governments in Thailand and Cambodia is that there’s hardly anything new about them. Pheu Thai has allied with the coalition of Prayuth Chan-o-cha, the former army chief who ousted Yingluck, pushing the Move Forward into the opposition, irrespective of the electoral result.
In Cambodia, years of suppressing the opposition have paid off. The 45-year-old West Point-educated General Hun Manet leads at last – while Hun Sen has said he will continue to “control politics” as head of the ruling party.
But Hun Manet and Thavisin are fresh faces after a long period of authoritarian rule, which could augur a change.
Hun Manet’s education, having studied economics in the United States and the United Kingdom, has raised hopes that as Hun Sen’s influence wanes, the characteristics of his tenure, a king-like autocracy and a dependence on China, can be replaced by a more democratic worldview instilled during Hun Manet’s years abroad.
Thavisin, for his part, has slammed military rule for tarnishing Thailand’s international image. For the past few decades, the 61-year-old has managed one of Thailand's major real estate conglomerates. His business acumen and liberal worldview is expected to replace the closed-in, conservative mindset of Thailand over the past decade under Prayuth.
While Hun Manet has vowed that Cambodia will be a high-income country by 2050, and Thavisin pledged equal economic opportunities to drive growth, some aspects of the status quo are harder to reverse.
Thailand is currently “reviewing” whether or not to accept Chinese-made engines in submarines purchased from China. China had failed to secure German-made engines due to an EU embargo, as had been stipulated in the purchasing contract. The 2020 deal to purchase two more submarines, after a 2017 deal to buy the first one, was delayed by the pandemic. But the Thai public saw no strategic need to justify obtaining submarines and Prayuth was attacked for kowtowing to Beijing.
Analysts suspect that with elements of the Prayuth regime in Thavisin’s coalition, the civilian-led government cannot go too far with military oversight and budgeting constraints, despite the overwhelming public support for such moves expressed during the election through the votes for Move Forward. In Thailand, political stability depends on pleasing the establishment and Thaksin knows better than to allow another military intervention on his own faction.
In Cambodia, China’s cash injections to development and infrastructure projects often come with strings attached. In June last year, China began construction to expand the Ream port in Cambodia, despite the United States voicing concerns it would be a naval port to extend China’s military presence in the Gulf of Thailand. Hun Sen reportedly granted China the right to build a base in 2019.
In 2009, China’s then-Vice President Xi Jinping offered Cambodia concessional loans and grants totalling US$1.2 billion, a day after Cambodia repatriated 20 Uyghurs at Beijing’s behest.
While this month, one of the first tasks Hun Manet undertook was to assure China that Cambodia will maintain an “unchanged stance” on Beijing’s one-China and non-interference policy.
With the rise of Thavisin and Hun Manet, it is harder than ever to separate political, public and personal interests, even though the backgrounds of both men bring a level of credibility to their respective administrations. Although many observers expect the balancing act could change after years of dependence on China by Phnom Penh and Bangkok, their hands are tied, either by family legacy, political or financial interests. Beyond optics and the promises of policies, changes defined by self-determination, long overdue in Thailand and Cambodia, will not be seen anytime soon.