The Fresh Princes of Phnom Penh
By JULIA WALLACE
PHNOM PENH — Ten years ago, the children of Cambodia’s ruling elite were busy cementing interfactional alliances with a dizzying blitz of marriages. Having accomplished that, they’re now working on taking over the country.
At least six sons of high-ranking members of the Cambodian People’s Party, which has had a stranglehold on the government for over a decade, have been announced as parliamentary candidates in July’s national elections, and their candidacies are being actively promoted by their famous fathers as pre-election barnstorming heats up.
“Even if there are no more angels, there are still baby angels,” Prime Minister Hun Sen reportedly said in a recent campaign speech. In a reference to the angel scattering flowers that is the longstanding symbol of the C.P.P., he was anointing his and his associates’ progenies as Cambodia’s next generation of leaders.
Hun Many, the youngest of Hun Sen’s three sons, is his deputy cabinet chief; he also heads the C.P.P.’s Youth Association, a crucial conduit for recruiting young people into the party. Now, at 30, he is also running for a seat in the National Assembly. So is the son of Interior Minister Sar Kheng. At 33, Sar Sokha has already risen through the ranks of his father’s ministry to become a senior police official, and is married to the daughter of the former chief of the army.
Other newly announced candidates include Cheam Chansophoan, son of Cheam Yeap, a prominent member of Parliament; Say Sam Al, son of the Senate’s president; Ty Dina, son of the Supreme Court president; and Dy Vichea, the son of the late, immensely powerful (and immensely feared) national police chief, Hok Lundy.
Dy Vichea, a senior police official, also happens to be married to Hun Sen’s daughter, Mana, a businesswoman with investments in nearly every sector.(This is a second marriage for both: His first wife was the daughter of Hun Sen’s brother, while her first husband was the son of the army’s procurement czar.) Mana’s brother Manith is married to Dy Vichea’s sister Chindavy.
Manith and Hun Sen’s other son, Manet, are also highly placed, with each holding multiple positions. Manith is a colonel in the army, deputy head of the Military Intelligence Unit and head of an ambitious new land-titling program staffed by student volunteers loyal to Hun Sen. Manet, a West Point graduate, is a major general, deputy chief of his father’s bodyguard unit and head of the army’s counterterrorism unit. He is widely perceived as his father’s favorite son and heir apparent.
In a nationally televised speech Thursday, Hun Sen told voters he believed Manet was the child of a neak ta, a powerful local spirit, who had been living in a tree nearby.“When he was born, there was a bright light flying around the cottage’s roof,” Hun Sen said, before turning to his son.“You should go visit that banyan tree, because you come from that tree.”
Even as it builds a dynasty of young politicians ever more closely linked through blood and business ties, the C.P.P. has denied any claims of nepotism. It argues instead that the children of the ruling elite are simply the most qualified candidates for the positions they hold or seek. This is not untrue, since these children of privilege attend the best international schools in Phnom Penh, and are often sent abroad for expensive degrees. But merit hardly seems to be the point.
The prime minister has been warning voters recently of what may happen if the C.P.P. loses power: New infrastructure projects will end; the schools and pagodas bearing Hun Sen’s name will be destroyed; civil war may break out.“Just tick the angel box and you are electing Hun Sen,” he has advised. He will probably be heard. The election’s outcome already seems inevitable, so why not tick that box and be on the side of the angels?