Phnom Penh, Cambodia —
Cambodia’s new prime minister, Hun Manet, has enjoyed warming relations with the Western world during his first six months in power, while simultaneously reaffirming Phnom Penh’s ties to Beijing and maintaining the hardline tactics of his father and predecessor, Hun Sen.
That dichotomy has enraged human rights and democracy advocates who want the United States, Japan, European Union and other democratic donors to exert pressure on the new government to reform and reopen space for political freedom after what was essentially a one-party election in July.
Moeun Tola, executive director of the Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights (Central), in Phnom Penh, told VOA Khmer during a phone interview last week that “nothing has changed” under Hun Manet, in terms of the government’s ability to effect positive change or improve public services.
“The courts are still used as tools of the powerful and politicians,” he said. “The situation of human rights under the new government is worse than the previous government; the civil and political rights are even worse.”
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, called Hun Manet “old wine in a new bottle.”
“He’s wholly dependent on his father’s continued support so he does not dare change anything, especially on sensitive issues like human rights,” he told VOA via email on January 15. “There are plenty of ways that Manet could show he was different if he wanted to, but he’s done none of them.”
Sok Eysan, spokesperson for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), said there was no difference between the governments led by Hun Manet and Hun Sen, since they both followed the ruling party’s policies.
“The important thing is to meet the needs of the voters,” Sok Eysan said via phone interview on January 19.
New leader criticized less
Hun Manet represents a generational transfer of power in Cambodia, with much of his Cabinet composed of fresh faces closely connected to ruling party stalwarts. His official swearing in on August 22 came as authorities continued to crush dissent as they have done since 2017 before an election. The ruling party has kneecapped the opposition and hobbled independent media and civil society.
But Hun Manet, a 46-year-old West Point graduate and career military man, has faced little of the public foreign criticism that dogged his father, who ruled over Cambodian politics for 38 years. And Hun Sen, who remains the ruling party’s president, is expected to become Senate president after this month’s Senate election.
Ly Sreysrors, a political commentator and university lecturer in Phnom Penh, said diplomats see a strategic value in playing nice with Hun Manet, even if there is little cause for optimism that he will break from his father’s authoritarian style.
“Western countries still want to explore and learn about the new government, as do Asian countries,” she said Saturday in a phone interview.
“It’s about geopolitics, where Cambodia is in a good strategic location for China,” said Ly Sreysrors. “To balance the power, Western countries need to try a new partnership with this new government, but will touch upon only less sensitive issues such as investment, aid, etc.”
Last month, Hun Manet was welcomed to the Elysee Palace for an official visit with French President Emanuel Macron. Shortly after that, he met with USAID administrator Samantha Power, who said the two discussed “opportunities to build a more productive relationship,” with no public mention of democracy or human rights.
Hun Manet made his first foreign visit to meet with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in October in Beijing, where he promised Phnom Penh would maintain an “unchanged” stance toward its largest benefactor. That same month, the U.S. lifted a freeze on some aid, which had been imposed in protest of an election that Washington said was neither free nor fair.
Challenges at home
As Hun Manet has strengthened ties with Western leaders, the headlines closer to home have been bleak.
In January, four opposition Candlelight Party officials were jailed on charges of using forged documents to register candidates for commune councilor posts in the 2022 local election. The Candlelight Party condemned the arrests as “new threats” to “break the spirit of Cambodians from engaging in political activities” in the run-up to the Senate elections scheduled for February 25.
Last week, three Cambodian political activists and their family members were arrested in Thailand — historically a safe haven for dissidents — ahead of Hun Manet’s planned visit to the country. The trio were reportedly planning protests against the prime minister.
And on Monday, the ruling party filed a lawsuit against a senior human rights investigator with a local nongovernmental organization, ADHOC Cambodia, after Hun Sen accused him on Facebook of insulting the CPP, which has ruled the country since 1979.
Some in Cambodia have detected a difference in tone and substance. Chhun Teareach, a business major at a university in Phnom Penh, told VOA Khmer in a phone interview on January 30 that he has observed “a more competent Cabinet” running Cambodia in the past six months.
He said he is hopeful the new leader will regularly report on “actual results” of the government and allow the public to “challenge its credibility without fear.”