Since setting up a slew of new social media accounts in mid-August, Cambodia’s army commander has been on a publicity blitz: 95 videos posted to YouTube, TikTok, Twitter and Instagram as of Tuesday morning.
The general has held speeches at public events every few days, whether at military ceremonies, ruling-party forums or a university graduation ceremony in Phnom Penh’s Toul Kork district.
At that event on September 5, in front of around 1,000 graduating students, he waded into the hot topic of the day: League for Democracy Party president Khem Veasna’s doomsday prophecy and a gathering of followers in Siem Reap to escape foretold floods.
“The belief is their right … but don’t be so extreme as to cut off family connections or do something against the law,” the general said, noting how similar incidents in the U.S. had led to mass suicide. “There can be a breaking up of families … with parents, between husband and wife, because of the belief.”
It was one of at least 20 speeches and public events that have made their way online since the start of August.
But Hun Manet, obviously, is not just a military commander: He is the prime minister’s eldest son and chosen successor of the ruling CPP. And increasingly, he is putting on a public show and raising his profile — including responding to criticisms hurled at him from his father’s usual verbal sparring partners.
On August 18 in Stung Treng province, Manet made a speech in front of Brigade 128 denying accusations from Mother Nature co-founder Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson that he was involved in the privatization and deforestation of the Phnom Tamao forest.
“Those trying to gain political benefit came out to comment,” he said in a speech he later posted online. “He considers himself an environmental activist, protecting the environment with love for nature in Cambodia, but what he does in the environmental [sector] is political activity.”
“There’s a complete difference between constructive criticism and inventing issues to distort others for political gain.”
On September 14, Manet uploaded a video of his speech to a CPP forum taking on Sam Rainsy, a former opposition leader and perennial irritant to the ruling party from exile in France. Rainsy had argued online that Manet was taking away opportunities from other young politicians by becoming Hun Sen’s hand-picked successor despite having achieved nothing himself.
“I accept that in Cambodia, there are many people with ability, and in the CPP there are also many people with ability,” Manet said. “But the central committee voted collectively to choose one person because they can only choose one person and gave me the opportunity. Now what can we do? And if he wanted to give other youths opportunities, why not allow [youths] from his party to stand as prime minister?”
Manet pointed out that the Candlelight Party, which was previously led by Rainsy, still had old politicians as leaders. “If he wants to give [them] opportunities, don’t point at others. Don’t just raise the issue without giving a solution.”
Justifying his selection as successor has been a common theme in both his and his father’s speeches. Manet was selected to lead the CPP’s youth movement in June 2020, and in December last year Hun Sen endorsed him as future prime minister. A CPP congress later that month backed the decision.
Manet’s public appearances have increased since, including the creation of a new Facebook page, “Hun Manet – C.O.Army Office,” on August 15. From August through mid-September, Manet has met with Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Laotian Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith, and visited Vietnam and Laos. He has attended events for a doctor’s association, cultural arts and demining charities. And like his father, speeches giving broad orders — in Manet’s case about drug use in the military — have been “leaked” to pro-government press.
Political analyst Em Sovannara said Manet was presenting himself as the future prime minister. “He’s been trying to show his ability in doing activities within both the public framework and party framework.”
“Firstly, he is a successor within the younger generation, and second, he is the prime ministerial candidate. He has a role in the party, so he has to work hard in order to be in front of others. In order to be at the front, he has to conduct real activities.”
So far, Manet was following the old model of his father without showing how the next generation would be different, Sovannara added.
“He has not created a political model or new activity for himself yet. He has followed the trail of previous politicians, and we see how much he is following his father both in the way he speaks and raises personal issues to talk about in public,” he said. “Something created by himself will be more valuable than following the political path of the previous generation of politicians.”
Sovanna said it could be better to move on from airing personal grievances in public with people like Rainsy as Hun Sen has routinely done.
“In my opinion, he should stay calm when it comes to personal [issues], but when it comes to [issues about] the common benefit of the nation, he has to be active and show an active political character.”
CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said Manet and others of his generation had been stepping up to lead various institutions.
“If the party continues to win elections, those youths will infiltrate all structures of leadership and management of the government,” Eysan said.
Manet was well aware of his selection as future prime ministerial candidate and was conducting himself accordingly, he added.
“He has to conduct activities individually to be outstanding to make people across the country see that after winning an election, the CPP has a prime minister with the potential and qualities [to fulfill] the hopes of people across the country.”
Asked if Manet was modeling himself after his father, Eysan said Manet was simply putting himself through the many experiences needed to lead the country.
“It is normal as a successor … to be prime minister, he has to do big works, the challenging work of governing. He has to go out to gain better experience. That is the experience of work.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the date.