24 Mar Blog: Cambodia’s political families
By Neil Loughlin.
Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen has dominated the country’s politics for nearly 40 years. He recently announced he would like to rule for another decade. Often described as a “strongman” leader, his longevity has led some to describe Cambodia’s regime as a “personalist” dictatorship. In personalist regimes “the dictator has effectively eliminated the ruling coalition, whose support is no longer necessary for his survival.” Other scholars however have pushed back against this label, noting that the Prime Minister works through institutional structures and manage factions within the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), suggesting he remains accountable to members of his ruling coalition. I agree, and in my view this is evident in a process of hereditary succession currently underway in the country. It illuminates not only the Prime Minister’s position at the apex of political power, but also the residual power of other important actors and politico-economic structures in Cambodia.
Over the past 40 years a number of institutions and social groups have risen to prominence in Cambodia. Politically the CPP – the renamed political party of the former People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) state – is the vehicle through which former state elites and the bureaucracy of the 1980s coalesced in order to govern the country since the 1990s. The country’s security forces (which overlap with the party at senior and lower levels) have also been central to securing the CPP in power. They protected themselves against rival armed groupings contesting the PRK in the 1980s during the country’s civil war. Now they continue to organise against dissenting parts of the populace amid the episodic contentious politics that has sporadically erupted in Cambodia since the 1990s. A third important group are tycoons. These crony capitalists dominate key sectors of the economy, nurtured and protected by the CPP state.
Despite Hun Sen’s apparent hopes to dominate Cambodia in perpetuity, he is getting old. He was born in 1952 and appears to be making plans for his succession, grooming his children to lead the country after his death. The frontrunner appears to be Hun Manet, his eldest son and Cambodia’s de facto military leader. Another possibility is his youngest son Hun Many, a CPP parliamentarian playing an important role in developing the party’s youth wing. His daughters are also powerful, with his eldest Hun Mana particularly notable for controlling a powerful business network. This all suggests that Hun Sen is positioning his family to dominate Cambodia for years to come.
Focussing only on the Prime Minister, however, misses an important dynamic. This is evident in the hereditary succession being reproduced throughout the structure, as the children of other powerful figures are being promoted into positions in the country’s political, military and economic hierarchy.
A prominent example of this hereditary succession is the son of the powerful Interior Minister Sar Kheng. His son, Sar Sokha, was recently made a secretary of state for sport and a lieutenant general in the military. In another example Say Sam-al, the son of Senate President and CPP Deputy leader Say Chhum, is now in charge of the country’s powerful Ministry of Environment. This pattern is being repeated throughout the structure. Tea Seiha, the Defense Minister’s son, is now Governor of Siem Reap. The son-in-law of the deputy head of the armed forces has been appointed the head of the gendarmes in the Siem Reap province. In this system powerful tycoon families are also important. They continue to amass fortunes protected by, and increasingly marrying into, political power. Thus Sok Sokan, the son of the late Council of Minister’s president Sok An and himself a CPP parliamentarian and secretary of state, married Sam Ang Leakhena, whose parents own the Vattanac Capital, one of Cambodia’s most important business groups. There are many more examples of such marriages.
These figures are important members of Cambodia’s ruling coalition, and it is clear their interests are being protected in a system dominated by a powerful Prime Minister who is nevertheless attentive to the needs of his supporters. As a personalist dictator we might expect Hun Sen to be neutralising horizontal threats to his succession plans, rather than supporting the renewal of the elite and their positions in the system. Instead, rolling back from a purely personalist perspective, what appears to be occurring in Cambodia is the solidification of a system of patronage-based rule among and between the ruling elite, buttressed by marriage. The result is the entrenchment of a web of political families in Cambodia fitting a pattern long noted in Southeast Asia’s political trajectory more generally. Over the longer term, this entrenchment of a political and economic elite may prove to be Hun Sen’s most important legacy, long after he has gone.
Image: Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen with his eldest son Manet. Source: www.bangkokpost.com.
Neil Loughlin is a postdoctoral researcher in political science at KITLV. His research focuses on comparative politics and the political economy of authoritarianism, with an emphasis on Southeast Asia. He is particularly interested in the impact of China’s rise on regime and development trajectories in the region.