When General Hun Manet was promoted to a two-star general last month, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen had to defend his eldest son’s rapid rise, dismissing claims it was an attempt to engineer an eventual succession.
One expert even drew parallels with dynastic plans in North Korea, where ruler Kim Jong-il has seemingly handpicked son Kim Jong-un to take over the reigns of power.
Thai-Cambodian border clashes have boosted 33-year-old Manet’s military credentials, observers say, a small victory for Hun Sen as the row with Thailand rumbles on.
Described as “a pretty humble guy” by a Phnom Penh-based diplomat who has met Manet on several occasions, the first-born of Hun Sen’s six children does not seek out the spotlight. Much has been made in Cambodia of his foreign education and despite his young age, Manet is already chief of the Ministry of Defense’s anti-terrorism unit as well as deputy commander of his father’s personal bodyguard unit.
He was promoted to a two-star general last month, a move that prompted some observers to suggest he was being groomed to succeed his father, 59, who has ruled Cambodia since 1985.
Hun Sen hit back, saying Manet — who graduated from the US Military Academy at West Point in 1999 and earned a doctorate in economics from the University of Bristol — was well-qualified for the roles.
“He has been in the army for 16 years and there is promotion within the army ranks,” Hun Sen said at the time.
Chhaya Hang, executive director of the Khmer Institute of Democracy, a policy group, believes the prime minister is trying to consolidate power by “orchestrating the future of Cambodia’s leadership.”
“We saw a similar story last year when the North Korean president promoted his son to a four-star general,” he said.
When a long-running border dispute with Thailand boiled over earlier this month, resulting in four days of deadly violence, Thai news outlets were quick to point out Manet’s role in the fighting. Some even claimed — wrongly — that he had been injured.
Hun Sen set the record straight, explaining in a speech that his son was involved in border strategy and negotiations with Thai counterparts — from the safety of Phenom Penh.
“Manet is so famous in Thailand now,” said Hun Sen, sounding like a proud father as he took a swipe at the Thai reports.
“The invaders curse you, son,” he said, before adding jokingly: “Let’s fight, son, your father encourages you.”
A few days after the violence died down, Manet traveled to the tense border to meet troops, stepping into the limelight at last.
“He paid a visit and encouraged our troops at the frontline,” said a Cambodian field military commander who did not wish to be named. “He also gave some advice to our soldiers regarding fighting tactics and self-defense.”
The visit appeared to serve the purpose of exposing Manet to a “real war situation,” that would help to “legitimize his role in the military as one of the modern world’s youngest generals,” Chhaya Hang said.