Authoritarian power in Cambodia, for the past 38 years, depended on monopolizing politics, jailing rivals, and silencing free speech.Photo copyright Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who won reelection on July 23, announced on July 26 he would install his West Point-trained son next month as the country's leader and resign after monopolizing politics, jailing rivals, and silencing free speech during his 38 years in power.

“I will leave, and not hold the prime minister’s office anymore starting from August 22, 2023,” Mr. Hun Sen, 70, announced in a televised broadcast.

“If I continue to be prime minister for one or two years, and then resign from the position, the situation will become unstable, so it is necessary to have a new cabinet, most of whom are young people responding to their duty for the future,” Mr. Hun Sen said.

His long-time colleagues including Defense Minister Tea Banh, Interior Minister Sar Kheng, National Assembly President Heng Samrin, and Minister of National Assembly Men Sam On, are slated to also resign.

They would be named the king's supreme advisors.

The transfer of prime ministerial power to his son is scheduled when the newly elected National Assembly, which opens on Aug. 21, receives the National Election Commission's confirmation of his father's ruling Cambodian People's Party's (CPP) landslide.

The CPP said it won 120 of the National Assembly's 125 seats in the July 23 national elections.

Gen. Hun Manet, 45, was a victorious first-time candidate to the National Assembly, representing the CPP in the capital Phnom Penh.

"I will be the president of the Senate to replace Samdech Say Chhum, who is too old [78] to take a break,” Mr. Hun Sen said, describing his future after February when the Senate holds elections.

That role may enable him to keep his diplomatic immunity against years of alleged human rights abuses and other authoritarian political tactics.

Saluting Cambodia's close links with China, his son's first trip as prime minister is expected to be to China's Belt and Road Summit in October.

Dozens of international senior government officials and business leaders are expected at the summit to increase investment, technology exchanges, logistic updates, multilateral collaboration, and how to exploit energy and natural resources in their Belt and Road zones.

Heir apparent Gen. Hun Manet also sounded vaguely optimistic about U.S.-Cambodian relations.

"Any improvement in relations depends in large part on whether Western governments are willing to accept a less democratic baseline for Cambodia," Gen. Hun Manet said hours before the polls, according to Bloomberg.

King Norodom Sihamoni met him on July 26 to discuss the transition of power.

Mr. Hun Sen is expected to help rule from the background to detect and destroy perceived political threats.

“I still have the possibility to continue to serve people, and help the government manage security and public order," he said last week.

Son and father presumably will expand Cambodia's extensive diplomatic, economic, and military ties with China.

"China has prized the political stability that Hun Sen has overseen in Cambodia, so the PRC (People's Republic of China) is likely at least a bit nervous about a handover of power to an untested successor,” veteran Cambodia watcher Craig Etcheson said in an interview.

Mr. Etcheson researched Cambodian affairs for 40 years, including more than a decade living in Cambodia. He authored four books about the country, including “Extraordinary Justice: Law, Politics, and the Khmer Rouge Tribunals.”

"The PRC has deep ties to Cambodia's social, political, economic, and military elites, so they have a firm basis upon which to move forward under a new Cambodian leader," he said.

"The U.S., conversely, is likely to recoil at a general hand-off of political power from father to son, and it may bode ill for U.S.-Cambodian relations, at least in the short term, until Manet reaches the point in his tenure when he can begin shaping policy on his own.

"As China's military relationship with Cambodia has grown, the U.S. military relationship with Cambodia has correspondingly declined," Mr. Etcheson said.

Mr. Hun Sen's son is Cambodia's first West Point military academy graduate. 

After West Point, Mr. Hun Manet became Royal Cambodian Army commander, and armed forces deputy commander-in-chief, plus deputy commander of his father's bodyguards, and head of Cambodia's counterterrorism unit.

He earned a New York University master's degree in economics, received a PhD in economics at England's Bristol University, and became a four-star general in March.

Washington and Beijing are eyeballing Gen. Hun Manet to see if his international and economic interests will shift Cambodia away from China and allow its former enemy, the U.S., greater involvement.

"At the Win-Win Monument [in Phnom Penh], there's a sculpted relief that shows Hun Sen, Hun Manet, and [China's leader] Xi Jinping first meeting together -- Xi being introduced to Manet," Arizona State University professor Sophal Ear, a Cambodia-born author on the Southeast Asian country, said in an interview.

"This is how important that moment was, it's carved in stone.

"The U.S. is hoping the son will take the country in a different direction. Cambodia's political culture makes it very hard that change would happen this way. Too much is at stake.

"China is knee-deep in all aspects. Politics? It is a major backer of Cambodia's regime internationally, a booster of the regime," Mr. Sophal Ear said.

China funded, developed, and is using Ream Naval Base on Cambodia's southern coast along the Gulf of Thailand which opens to the South China Sea, where the U.S. and China compete for military, territorial, access, and offshore rights, including undersea resources.


Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American foreign correspondent reporting from Asia since 1978. Excerpts from his two new nonfiction books, "Rituals. Killers. Wars. & Sex. -- Tibet, India, Nepal, Laos, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka & New York" and "Apocalyptic Tribes, Smugglers & Freaks" are available at