A month after he succeeded his father as Cambodia’s prime minister in the wake of the country’s latest election without an opposition, Hun Manet falsely told the U.N. General Assembly on Friday that the July 23 ballot was “free and fair” and “credible and just.”
Hun Sen handed power to his son after claiming victory in an election in which he banned the last remaining opposition party, the Candlelight Party, and threatened prison time and disenfranchisement for any Cambodians who joined the party’s efforts to boycott the vote.
His ruling Cambodian People’s Party, which has been in power since 1979, won 120 of the 125 available seats – a five-seat drop from 2018, with those seats going to its longtime coalition partner Funcinpec.
Speaking before the U.N. General Assembly in English, Hun Manet said it was his “great pleasure” to address the chamber “as the new prime minister of the Kingdom of Cambodia,” and lauded the election.
“Over 8.2 million people cast their ballots, a turnout rate of 84.59%,” he said, pointing to the participation of 18 minor parties as evidence of fairness. “This is the highest turnout since the U.N.-supervised election in 1993, and a clear indication of our people’s greater political maturity and enthusiasm in exercising their democratic rights.”
“The election has been widely assessed as free and fair, credible and just, by thousands of observers,” he said.
The United States and European Union declined to send observers due to concerns about the election’s integrity.
Hun Manet also appeared to address U.S. claims and satellite imagery that appears to show China building a military base in the port city of Sihanoukville, which his father has also repeatedly denied.
“Cambodia shall not authorize any foreign military base on this territory, as clearly stated in its constitution,” he said. “Cambodia will continue on its present path of independence and a neutral foreign policy.”
Hun Manet became Cambodia’s new premier on Aug. 22, after 38 years of rule by his father, who rose to power in 1985 under the communist regime installed by Vietnam after its ouster of Pol Pot.
Hun Sen long ruled with an iron fist, banning the resurgent Cambodia National Rescue Party shortly before the 2018 election and jailing its leader after the party threatened to win even a flawed election. Some members of the CNRP then reassembled into the Candlelight Party to contest this year’s election, before that party, too, was banned.
Hun Manet’s government has appeared no more eager for friendly competition, and has refused to give the party official registration documents it would need to contest in any future elections.
Change, or no change?
Outside the U.N. building on Friday, Cambodian-Americans and former opposition party leaders protested Hun Manet’s appearance, calling for his government to be stripped of Cambodia’s U.N. seat.
Former CNRP lawmakers including Ho Vann, Kong Saphea, Eng Chhay Eang and Mu Sochua – all of whom face lengthy prison sentences if they return to Cambodia – were in attendance, and the protesters reprised popular chants from the party’s post-2013 election mass protests, including the rhetorical “Change, or no change?”
Sochua, who also served as Cambodia’s minister for women’s affairs from 1998 to 2004, told Radio Free Asia she thought Hun Manet would not be able to completely quieten the sense of shame about how he took power, unable to campaign, on his own, in a free election.
“I don’t think that he sits in that seat comfortably,” Mu Sochua said of Cambodia’s U.N. seat. “Hun Manet is not a free man.”
It was clear, she said, that Hun Sen hoped to give his regime – known for arresting opposition leaders, banning rival parties and violently attacking critics – a new coat of sheen using Hun Manet’s face.
But Mu Sochua said the world should not buy what Phnom Penh was selling, and pointed to the decision to deny the opposition Candlelight Party its registration papers and the vicious beating of Ny Nak as evidence that the new prime minister was more of the same.
“If he wanted to be legitimized, if he wanted to be a new generation of Cambodian leader, we would have to start with free and fair elections,” she said. “You cannot fake legitimacy. How can he show a new face for Cambodia when he is under the control of his father?”
Others said they had traveled to New York to make sure the world knew Cambodians wanted the chance to freely choose their leaders.
“I came here because Cambodia is going on the wrong path for democracy,” said Thy Doak, 63, who traveled from Boston. “This dictator passed his power to Hun Manet which goes against the Paris Agreements that [say] we should have free and fair elections.”
Doak said he arrived in Cambodia as a refugee in 1984 and wanted his compatriots back home to enjoy the same freedoms he did now in the United States. He said he had no hope Hun Manet would deliver that.
“He’s no different from his father. There’s no change,” he said. “I don’t want Hun Manet to be a part of this thing. Cambodia does not deserve it. We’re supposed to be a democracy, but we have a dictatorship.”
Susie Chhoun, 45, who was born in the Khao-I-Dang refugee camp along the Cambodian-Thailand before her parents were given asylum in the United States in the 1980s, said she, too, held out little hope Hun Manet would usher in a period of change for her birth country.
“He already proved it. He wasn’t elected; power was basically handed to him in the regime,” Chhoun said, noting the irony of the situation.
“He got his education here in America, so you would assume he would have a different perspective and reform Cambodia to be more civilized. But it’s not the case,” she said. “He’s arresting people the same way, and this is when he’s new in power. Imagine after several decades.”