In an earlier-than-expected move that signified an end of an era in Cambodian politics, Hun Sen, one of the world’s longest-serving prime ministers, announced his relinquishment of the top office on July 26 after 38 years in power. As the nation anticipates a change of guard, all eyes now turn to his son Hun Manet, who is slated to assume the role on August 22.

The news of this landmark political shift and the emergence of new Cambodian leaders has ignited debates on the Kingdom’s future, particularly its foreign policy direction. A key question in these discussions centres on whether Manet’s Western education might potentially encourage greater engagement with the West, especially given the much-hyped claims of Cambodia leaning closer than ever towards China.

Meet Hun Manet

The general serves as deputy commander-in-chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) and commander of the Royal Cambodian Army.

Born on October 20, 1977 in Koh Thma, Memot district, which now falls within Tbong Khmum province, he is the second of Hun Sen’s six children.

His elder brother, Hun Kamsoth, passed away shortly after his birth in 1976. Manet’s younger siblings are Hun Mana, Hun Manith, Hun Many and Hun Mali. In a recent social media post, lawmaker Many recalled that Manet was a top mathematics student in the 1992-1993 academic year at Phnom Daun Penh High School.

Manet wedded Pich Chanmony, a public health doctorate graduate from a UK university and the daughter of Pich Sophoan, secretary of state at the Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training, in 2006. The couple are parents to two daughters and a son.

Manet’s international education

After enlisting in the army, Manet attended the US Military Academy West Point from 1995 to 1999. His graduation in May 1999 marked him as the first Cambodian to attend the prestigious institution.

After graduating from West Point, Manet continued his education at New York University in the US, earning a master’s degree in economics in 2002. He furthered his qualifications with a PhD in economics from Bristol University in the UK in 2008.

In a confidential communication from the US to his father in 1994, Manet revealed that he was studying political science, a fact he preferred to keep under wraps.

“For my major in political science, I would like dad and mom not to tell anyone, not even uncles and aunts, let alone outsiders, because it is my secret. I only let dad and mom know this,” he wrote.

A new direction for foreign policy?

With Hun Sen’s confirmation of Manet as successor, speculations about the nation’s future foreign policy have become rife, with particular attention to his Western education.

John Bradford, a senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, shared his thoughts with AP on July 23. He noted that Manet’s educational background “has given rise to hope from some in the West that he might bring political change, but it will still take work to regain influence in the Southeast Asian country of 16.5 million, given China’s strategic and economic importance”.

Bradford suggested that under Manet’s leadership, Cambodia may potentially become a more robust ally to the US. This outcome, however, would hinge on establishing strong foundations of mutual benefit and respect. He also pointed out that a leader’s educational and personal background do not always directly influence their leadership style or political stance. As a case in point, he pointed to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who was educated in Switzerland but whose leadership decisions do not align with Swiss values.

In a report by Asia Times, they reflected on the fact that the leaders of Cambodia’s genocidal Khmer Rouge regime were educated in Paris. They also highlighted that while Western governments, notably the EU, have increased their investments in Cambodia, the country’s economy is significantly intertwined with China, particularly in sectors where Western countries may not wish to compete.

The ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has recently outlined a flexible approach to foreign policy. This plan aims to adapt to the ever-changing geopolitical landscape, which is shaped by the competitive influences of the world’s major powers.

Chhay Sophal, the biographer of Manet, confirmed to The Post that upon assuming his official role on August 22, Manet’s foreign policy will adhere to the recently proclaimed CPP policy.

“When a new prime minister comes to power and he is from the CPP, he must follow the party line. Cambodia’s foreign policy is neutrality and non-alliance, not different from that of the current government mandate,” he explained.

Sophal added that regardless of the country in which an individual received their education, not all the knowledge acquired will necessarily be applicable in another country. Factors such as politics, economics, society, culture and traditions must be taken into account.

The CPP’s foreign policy aims to maintain established alliances while welcoming new ones.

Kin Phea, director of the International Relation Institute at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, emphasised that leaders who received both domestic and foreign education acquire scientific knowledge that guides their work. However, their education, whether basic or advanced, does not determine a country’s policy direction based on the country where they studied. He noted that effective theories and scientific knowledge are adopted only as far as they are applicable within Cambodia’s context.

Phea referred to Article 53 of the Constitution, which affirms the Kingdom’s commitment to permanent neutrality and non-alliance, along with peaceful coexistence with all countries. He also outlined the CPP’s seven core principles for the next five years, which include opposing force, non-support for invasions, disapproval of unlawful occupations, non-interference in domestic affairs of other nations, prohibition of foreign military presence in Cambodia, and refusal to endorse invasions of other countries.

“No matter where [Manet] received his education, Cambodia’s foreign policy must focus on strategic national interests. This includes peace and security protection, development, raising national prestige on the international stage, and promoting Cambodia’s regional and international role,” he said.

He added that the prime minister should also aim to elevate Cambodia’s culture and traditions on the global stage.

“Policy makers and implementers need to pay attention to strategic national interests,” he suggested.

In social media posts ahead of the July 23 election, Manet emphasised that leading a country requires prioritising national interests and placing the people at the heart of all decisions, even if this approach displeases others.

In a Facebook post on July 9, the prime minister-in-waiting likened any false allegations against him to mere distractions in a game of obstacles. He argued that a person should not be swayed by those who attempt to divert their focus through their words, shouts or even thunderous noise, which might hinder them from achieving their goals.

Manet emphasised individual accountability, stating: “In essence, everything depends on us. We are the sole determinant of our success. Whether we reach our goal or not is our responsibility. It is not primarily dependent on the surrounding environment.”

In a post on July 7, he summarised what could be seen as his overarching policy.

“In the 43-year history of Cambodia, life, sustenance and reputation have been, and will continue to be, the priorities of the government led by the Cambodian People’s Party,” he asserted.

In a heartfelt social media exchange, Manet responded to a tweet from his father, pledging his commitment to the wellbeing of Cambodia.

“When you become Prime Minister, my son, you must do your utmost to protect the peace and ensure the continued development of the Kingdom and the wellbeing of our compatriots,” Hun Sen tweeted.

In a show of deep respect and dedication, Manet replied: “I will remember your advice forever and I will act on your advice in all circumstances”.

As Manet prepares to take the helm, this public exchange between father and son sets a hopeful tone for the future of Cambodia.