Exiled Cambodian opposition figure Sam Rainsy has thrown his support behind the current defense minister’s son to become prime minister four months ahead of July’s general elections.
The announcement followed a report about a shakeup and power struggle within the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, or CPP, over the selection of a new leader to succeed Hun Sun, who has ruled the country since 1985.
Sam Rainsy, acting president of the disbanded opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, posted a statement Friday on Facebook backing Tea Seiha, governor of Siem Reap province and the son of Defense Minister Tea Banh, as a prime ministerial candidate for the 2023-28 term.
The Cambodia National Rescue Party was the previous main opposition party before Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved it in 2017. Sam Rainsy, a party co-founder, has been living in self-exile in France since 2015, when he fled a series of charges his supporters say are politically motivated.
“The Cambodian people who want freedom and justice must unite around Tea Seiha, Tea Banh and Tea Vinh in order to bring about a democratic change in the country’s leadership through peaceful and nonviolent means, meaning free and fair elections,” he wrote.
Admiral Tea Vinh is the brother of Tea Banh and commander of the Royal Cambodian Navy. The U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned Tea Vinh in late 2021 for corruption concerning China’s involvement in the redevelopment of Ream Naval Base in Sihanoukville province, which could give Chinese forces a stronghold in the contested South China Sea.
In Transparency International’s 2022 Corruption Perceptions Index, Cambodia scored only 24 out of 100, and was ranked at 150 out of 180 countries.
“Such a change will promote a new leadership which is not made up of murderers, desperately corrupt people and traitors to the nation such as Hun Sen and his family,” Sam Rainsy wrote, referring to the authoritarian prime minister who has ruled Cambodia for 38 years.
The move comes as Cambodia prepares to elect members of the National Assembly, now fully controlled by the CPP under Hun Sen, who also serves as the party’s president. Opposition figures, including Sam Rainsy, want the prime minister and his party out of power.
In the run-up to the election, Hun Sen has repeatedly attacked members of the Candlelight Party — the current main challenger to the ruling party — in public forums, while CPP authorities have sued Candlelight members on what many observers see as politically motivated charges.
Tea Banh, who has served as defense minister since the late 1980s, dismissed San Rainsy’s support for his son in a Facebook statement of his own, and stated his backing of Hun Sen’s oldest son, Hun Manet, as the future prime minister.
Hun Manet, 45, is commander of Cambodia’s army, deputy commander-in-chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, and leader of the CPP’s central youth wing. Hun Sen has groomed him to be his successor.
Sam Rainsy’s statement “aims at breaking national unity,” Tea Banh wrote. “My family and I still have a stand to support Hun Manet to be the next prime ministerial candidate.
He added that the military will work against any foreign interference in an attempt to topple the legal government.
Following the statement, many senior military officials also denounced Sam Rainsy’s backing of Tea Seiha, who is widely expected to succeed his father as defense minister when Tea Bahn retires.
After Hun Sen said in December 2022 that Hun Manet would succeed him, some leaders in his government, including Tea Bahn and Interior Minister Sar Kheng, did not immediately endorse the move, though they eventually expressed support for the plan.
Political analyst Kim Sok said the matter is indicative of internal rifts in the CPP over prime ministerial candidates, suggesting that a faction led by Sar Kheng and Tea Banh still may not be pleased with Hun Sen’s intention to transfer power to his son.
He also said Hun Sen’s concern about a possible revolution sweeping through Cambodia might not come from members of the public and young people displeased with chronic corruption within the government and growing authoritarianism, but from within the CPP itself.
“Hun Sen has said that he will be the CPP president when his son is the prime minister; this means there is an internal rift,” said Kim Sok. “This is a sign of a color revolution within the party.”
Hun Sen recently warned Cambodians not to attempt to stage any color revolutions — popular anti-regime protest movements and accompanying changes of government — using human rights as a pretext, but rather to protect his so-called hard-earned peace.
Translated by Samean Yun for RFA Khmer. Edited by Roseanne Gerin and Malcolm Foster.