Hun Sen has been terrible for Cambodia. His son could be worse

Cambodians continue to fight for democracy, as a new generation of the elite – inexperienced and entitled – takes over. The world needs to stand up, too.

Hun Manet, right, a son of Cambodia Prime Minister Hun Sen, stands before he leads a procession to mark the end of an election campaign of Cambodian People's Party, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Friday, July 21, 2023. Hun Sen says he is ready to hand the premiership to his oldest son, Hun Manet, who heads the country’s army. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)
Hun Manet, right, son of Cambodia's outgoing Prime Minister Hun Sen, is poised to take over from his father. Here, he stands before he leads a procession to mark the end of an election campaign of Cambodian People's Party, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Friday, July 21, 2023 [Heng Sinith/AP Photo]

Last month’s elections in Cambodia should have dispelled any illusion that democracy  – for long under attack – is even alive in the country.

The campaign, and subsequent ballot, was a tightly-controlled and stage-managed process, which deprived the country’s 9.7 million registered voters of a political alternative. It was mere theatre, and the result was entirely predictable.

Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won their preordained landslide in a contest in which they faced no credible opposition. The election was about paving the way for a handover of power from Hun Sen to his son, Hun Manet, and entrenching a dictatorship that has ruled the country for 38 years.

Even before the polling booths closed on July 23, it was a foregone conclusion that Hun Sen’s CPP would romp to ‘victory’. And, so it was, with the CPP taking 120 of 125 available seats in Cambodia’s National Assembly.

Suppression was rife. Voters who dared to damage or destroy their ballots as a sign of protest faced the prospect of jail time or having to pay a hefty fine. And independent media were muzzled against speaking out on Hun Sen.

I, and dozens of other exiled political opponents, exemplify the outcomes of those that choose to participate in Cambodia’s increasingly Soviet-style interpretation of democracy.

My former party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, won over 43 percent of the vote in the 2013, 2015 and 2017 elections, despite open corruption and interference by Hun Sen and his government. Our presence, and growing competition with the incumbent administration, would be healthy in any other democratic country. However, for Hun Sen, we posed too much of a risk – and, like others in my country’s dark history, we were dissolved for allegedly orchestrating a ‘foreign coup’ against the government.

This time, a similar fate befell Candlelight, a new opposition party, which was on course to defeat Hun Sen’s CPP until its abrupt disqualification in May 2023. The party was barred from fielding candidates because it “submitted a photocopied document rather than an original copy”, as part of its application, and Candlelight’s members and activists were subsequently targeted and incarcerated by government forces.

And yet, still, even against this backdrop, peaceful opposition found a way to manifest. National counts show that upwards of half a million Cambodians spoiled their ballots, despite threats of fines or arrest. This accounts for one in 18 votes cast at the elections, and, together with the consistent birth of new opposition forces, suggests that the will for a democratic alternative to the CPP will not be suffocated, irrespective of government corruption and intimidation.

It also, arguably more than ever, shows the need for the international community – and in particular, democratic leaders in the West – to call out the abuses of the Hun Sen administration and to enact punitive measures against him and his son, Hun Manet.

This cannot come soon enough. For, as part of the ongoing succession plan, we are now witnessing a solidification of the Cambodian elite into key positions of influence. Beyond the handover of the premiership to Hun Manet, which will take place later this summer, many ministries are now being stuffed with woefully inexperienced children of party loyalists, who will continue the legacy of their parents.

This sad reality has already been evidenced in the appointment of Say Sam Al as minister for the environment – a figure, who, despite showing some initial interest in working together with young environmentalists, quickly gave way to the ruling tradition of arresting and imprisoning those who seek to defend the natural world.

Other appointees, including the new minister of defence, Tea Seiha – son of the current minister of defence, Tea Banh – and Minister of the Interior, Sar Sokha, also seem grossly inappropriate. The latter, in particular, seems to share Hun Manet and Tea Seiha’s lack of grounding for office, raising concerns that he will not be able to prevent the increasing power of the Chinese mafia and their roles in human trafficking and other crimes against ordinary Cambodians.

These machinations are playing out at the same time as many young people leave for opportunities abroad, or risk imprisonment for trying to protect those that are most vulnerable in society.

The international community has a historic and binding responsibility when it comes to Cambodia. Many of its members were signatories to a commitment, when there were first free and fair elections in June 1993, that sought to underpin democracy in Cambodia. They have a responsibility, under the Paris Peace Accords, to defend human rights and to call out the continuing abuses of the CPP.

They must make it clear, both to Hun Manet and others who take power with him, that the international community insists on positive democratic change in Cambodia, starting with the release of all political prisoners and amnesty for all exiles who wish to return to their country of birth.

The new leadership must not seek to divide the population, as their parents have done, or silence their opponents. And, in the case of Hun Manet, there must be a demand that he is a legitimate ruler.

The Cambodian people are hungry for democracy, for quality healthcare and education, for freedom, and for three meals a day. The international community has an obligation to respond, demand change, and, if required, coordinate visa and asset sanctions against those of the CPP who want to destroy the democratic future of my country.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.