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Cambodia's long serving prime minister steps down — handing power to his son

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Cambodia's long-serving authoritarian prime minister is officially stepping down. Hun Sen had been in power for more than 38 years. Tomorrow, the Cambodian parliament officially approves the transfer of power to his hand-picked successor, who is his son and former head of the army, Hun Manet. NPR's Michael Sullivan tells us more.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Music wafting from a small temple along Phnom Penh's riverfront promenade is one of the few things that feel familiar in the capital these days. The once-sleepy French colonial vibe has given way to an increasingly frenetic pace in a city of more and more high-rises and high-end cars, in a country where the 71-year-old Hun Sen is the only leader most Cambodians have ever known.

SEBASTIAN STRANGIO: The Cambodia that he inherited and the Cambodia of today are virtually unrecognizable.

SULLIVAN: Sebastian Strangio is a journalist and the author of "Hun Sen's Cambodia."

STRANGIO: There's been massive urbanization on his watch, the emergence of a Khmer middle class. And for young Cambodians, Cambodians born today, what they can expect from life is vastly more ambitious than what it was for their parents and grandparents. So it's important to recognize these sorts of changes compared to Cambodia's history of civil war, conflict, upheaval and revolution.

SULLIVAN: Civil war and conflict that Hun Sen was in the thick of.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

SULLIVAN: In 1997, then-co-Prime-Minister Hun Sen launched a coup rejecting a U.N.-brokered power-sharing arrangement with one of his rivals. It was fast. It was bloody. And the former Khmer Rouge commander never looked back.

STRANGIO: He's shown a willingness to act ruthlessly to shape political reality to his liking, and that has involved the use of force and, more recently, the use of the law, the courts, to eliminate or neuter any source of potential opposition.

SULLIVAN: Unlike Hun Sen, his successor and son, Hun Manet, grew up in a context of extreme wealth and privilege, educated at some of the best schools in the world.

SOPHAL EAR: Hun Manet and I became friends when he was at West Point.

SULLIVAN: That's Sophal Ear, an associate professor at Arizona State University. He was at the World Bank when the two met, and they became close enough to eventually attend each other's marriages.

EAR: He's actually a pretty modest guy, very studious, serious, had interesting conversations. I was also happy then to introduce him to people at the World Bank.

SULLIVAN: West Point, a masters at NYU and later an internship at the World Bank - all might lead some to wonder if Hun Manet's exposure to liberal Western values might influence his approach to governing a Cambodia that's become an essentially one-party state. His friend Sophal Ear is skeptical.

EAR: We've seen this play out in other scenarios where, you know, a ophthalmologist trained in London who is an IT geek takes over for his Syrian dad and commits genocide, or a Swiss boarding school student becomes the head of North Korea.

SULLIVAN: And during this period of transition, his father, Hun Sen, won't be very far away. Sebastian Strangio.

STRANGIO: He's going to remain the locus of power in Cambodia for the foreseeable future. I think that his son will need to learn on the job, and it will be a very, very steep learning curve for him.

SULLIVAN: Hun Sen has tried to help ease the transition for his son by making it wholesale - involving other powerful players in the ruling Cambodian People's Party, a generational change in cabinet positions and other government portfolios that ensures dynastic succession not just for his family but for the others as well. Sophal Ear.

EAR: Young people, the next generation taking over for, typically, their parents - you know, that's part of the agreement, right? You stabilize it through having family members take over so that it continues even though the next generation takes figurative power.

SULLIVAN: But Virak Ou, who heads the Phnom Penh think tank Future Forum, says there could still be some hiccups.

VIRAK OU: When all of these positions, all of these posts change at the same time, you're bound to create a lot of uncertainties, a lot of questions that hasn't settled, a lot of patronage versus rivalries and groupings and maneuvering. These things will not settle within the next one or two years. And then during that period, that competition will then be something to watch.

SULLIVAN: One direction Cambodia won't be heading - away from its chief benefactor, China. The incoming prime minister made that clear when he hosted China's foreign minister, Wang Yi, earlier this month and pledged a continuation of the close relationship as China continues to expand and improve a Cambodian naval base in the south not far from the South China Sea. In the meantime, the man who's been in power for most of the past four decades has made it clear he'll be watching the transition unfold very carefully, just in case.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER HUN SEN: (Speaking Khmer).

SULLIVAN: "If my son's in danger, I'll return to be prime minister," Hun Sen said, vowing not to let the country plunge into turmoil again.

Michael Sullivan, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michael Sullivan
Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.
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