As Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s plan to hand power to his eldest son gathers pace, the long-ruling premier is consolidating his control over a fractious defense ministry that some observers believe was running parallel but separate diplomatic channels to China.
Tea Banh, the defense minister since the 1980s, is believed to have been the last of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) grandees to support the nomination of Hun Manet as the party’s future prime ministerial candidate in late 2021.
On March 17, Hun Manet, deputy commander-in-chief of the military and commander of the army, was promoted to a four-star general. The same day, the prime minister’s second-eldest son, Hun Manith, the current head of military intelligence, was promoted to deputy army commander.
Sources say it wasn’t coincidental that the pair was promoted shortly after Asia Times published an article about a major dispute between the Hun and Tea families over appointments within the defense ministry, as well as control of the military and security apparatus, which has typically been balanced between party elites to prevent factional infighting.
Hun Sen – who is now “paranoid” of anything potentially derailing his succession plans, as one well-placed source put it – is moving quickly to secure his family’s control of politics, which will be the defining feature of his long-held plans for a dynastic succession.
One analyst believes that the recent military promotions of the two Hun children were intended to bury rumors of ill will between the Hun and Tea families, although others say it was a show of strength by Hun Sen.
Manith’s promotion was only officially announced on March 21 and local media reported that it was ordered by Tea Banh’s defense ministry, which also put out adulating statements about Hun Manet and Manith for their services after their promotions.
On March 22, Hun Sen announced that Hun Manith won’t take over as army commander if (or when) Hun Manet, the current commander, moves up to become prime minister.
Instead, he said, that post will go to another deputy army commander, Mao Sophan, who is also head of the military’s notorious Brigade 70 that stands accused of being responsible for a grenade attack in 1997 against opposition leader Sam Rainsy, among other alleged rights abuses.
Brigade 70 is also linked to Hun Sen’s own Prime Minister Bodyguard Unit, suggesting Mao Sophan is firmly in the Hun family camp.
Sao Sokha, a former bodyguard and personal advisor to Hun Sen, is commander of the military’s Gendarmerie. Tea Banh’s brother, Tea Vinh, is navy commander.
Also on March 22, Hun Sen issued a sub-decree rotating two more military officers, including Sin Sokha as the new director of the military’s High Command’s Border Affairs Office.
Several sources – who all requested anonymity because of a growing climate of fear in Phnom Penh – said Hun Sen not only moved quickly to consolidate his family’s power over a potentially fractious element of the party, but is now also seeking to redefine his relationship with the Chinese government.
The alleged dispute between Hun Sen and Defense Minister Tea’s network within the defense ministry is linked to China, some analysts contend. For years, Beijing allegedly operated something of a two-track diplomacy in Cambodia, engaging directly with the defense ministry as separate from Hun Sen’s government.
The extent and nature of that back channel engagement is not fully known, although there are allegations that cannot be confirmed by Asia Times that the defense ministry has ties to Chinese organized crime rings. It is also believed that Beijing has a separate money channel flowing into the defense ministry.
Asia Times revealed in early 2021 that Tea Banh and his family members were the first Cambodian officials to receive a Chinese-made vaccine during the Covid-19 pandemic, something that Hun Sen was seemingly unaware of at the time.
It has been suggested that the Chinese government was keeping its options open by forming a close relationship with Tea Banh’s faction within the defense ministry as a way of hedging between Cambodia’s ruling party grandees and, perhaps, due to suspicions about Hun Sen’s allegiance to Beijing.
It is widely assumed that elements of the vast Chinese Communist Party apparatus also have separate interests in the Interior Ministry and other government departments.
Much of China’s investment has gone into Cambodia’s southern provinces of Preah Sihanouk and Koh Kong, areas where the Tea family’s network is strong, as well as in Siem Reap, where Tea Banh’s son, Tea Seiha, is governor.
Navy chief Tea Vinh, the brother of Tea Banh, was sanctioned by the US government in 2021 over alleged corruption around the controversial redevelopment of the Ream Naval Base, which Washington alleges Cambodia quietly intends to allow China’s navy exclusive access. Phnom Penh has adamantly denied the allegation.
Cambodia’s relations with the US have been severely strained since Phnom Penh stopped military exercises with the US in 2017 and began drilling with Chinese forces instead. The latest iteration, dubbed “Golden Dragon 2023”, will see China and Cambodia’s militaries carry out joint exercises from March 20 to April 8.
Just before the Covid-19 pandemic hit, there were signs that Phnom Penh sought rapprochement with Western governments that had responded punitively to the CPP’s authoritarian chokehold after 2017, when it forcibly banned the country’s largest opposition party and silenced civil society.
Relations with the US have warmed slightly, and Hun Sen has found a new partner in France that has actively sought to develop its cooperation with Phnom Penh in recent months, including plans for a French naval frigate to dock in Cambodia next weekend.
However, the most likely scenario, according to sources, is that Hun Sen goes back to Beijing having reconsolidated his power over the defense ministry and renegotiates his own relationship with the Chinese leadership, meaning that those Chinese networks once allied to the Tea family shift to Hun Manet.
Hun Manet accompanied his father on a visit to Beijing last month, as did another of the prime minister’s sons, Hun Many, a parliamentarian who is expected to become the minister in charge of the civil service after July’s election. Hun Sen still needs to convince Beijing that it can trust in a government led by his eldest son, a source said.
Follow David Hutt on Twitter at @davidhuttjourno