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Hun Sen, Asia’s longest-ruling leader, to step down, names son successor

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Hun Sen, Asia’s longest-ruling leader, to step down, names son successor

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SINGAPORE — Asia’s longest-serving head of state, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, is stepping down and handing over power to his son, Hun Manet, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy.

Hun Sen, 70, announced his resignation at a news conference in Phnom Penh on Wednesday, marking the end of a nearly four-decade rule in which he oversaw the transformation of Cambodia in the wake of the destructive Khmer Rouge regime, while methodically dismantling political opposition and consolidating his own hold on power.

Hun Manet will take over the premiership in three weeks, Hun Sen said, adding that he himself would continue on as head of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) as well as a member of the National Assembly. “Even if I am no longer a prime minister,” Hun Sen forewarned in June, “I will still control politics as the head of the ruling party.”

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Politically savvy but often brash on the international stage, he staved off Western pressure to liberalize Cambodia, positioning his country as one of China’s closest allies in Southeast Asia. He’s accepted billions in infrastructure funding from China, which he describes as Cambodia’s “most trustworthy friend,” and built close military ties with the People’s Liberation Army. In 2022, U.S. defense officials said Beijing was secretly building a naval facility in Cambodia — a charge that Hun Sen has vigorously denied and called “slander.”

Hun Sen’s departure announcement comes days after he cruised to a landslide victory in a parliamentary election that has been roundly criticized by the United States and other Western countries as “neither free nor fair. It also paves the way for a once-in-a-generation transition of power that could become a major test to the CPP.

“This is like the end of an era,” said Chhengpor Aun, a visiting fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies who focuses on Cambodian politics.

Since assuming power in 1979, the CPP’s top brass have carefully asserted control over nearly every aspect of Cambodian life — including their own succession, analysts say. Apart from Hun Sen, other members of the CPP old guard, including the sitting defense minister and deputy prime minister, are expected to step down in coming weeks and give way to the 30-something children of the party elite.

Politically, little is expected to change — at least in the near term, analysts said. The senior leaders are not being sidelined and will continue to have sway over government affairs and politics, Aun said. “If you look at the party’s priority, it’ll remain the same, which is: keep the party in power as long as possible,” he added.

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Sam Rainsy, the exiled leader of an opposition party, said the arrival of Hun Manet to the premiership would not buttress democracy in Cambodia. “Make no mistake, just like with Syria’s Assad and North Korea’s Kim … Hun Manet will continue the rule of this father, who, for almost four decades, has built a highly centralized power structure,” Rainsy said in a statement.

Hun Sen in recent years intensified his crackdown on dissent, likely in preparation for his party’s dynastic succession plan, analysts say. He shut down independent news outlets, imprisoned rights activists, and lashed out at those who dared to criticize his decisions.

In 2018, he threatened to “beat up” people who said they would protest his visit to Australia. Later that year, after the United States announced that it would cut aid to Cambodia because of “setbacks to democracy,” Hun Sen called the U.S. ambassador at the time “a liar ambassador.”

He often took to social media, particularly Facebook, to share his views directly with people, but left the platform abruptly in June, when it seemed likely Meta would suspend his account for posting content that incited violence.

Regine Cabato in Manila and Frances Vinall in Melbourne, Australia contributed reporting.

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