By Michelle Fitzpatrick
PHNOM PENH, Sunday 20 February 2011 (AFP) -- When Hun Manet was promoted to a two-star general last month, Cambodia's premier had to defend his eldest son's rapid rise, dismissing claims it was an attempt to engineer an eventual succession.
One expert even drew parallels with dynastic plans in secretive North Korea, where communist ruler Kim Jong-Il has seemingly hand picked son Kim Jong-Un to take over the reigns of power.
Thai-Cambodian border clashes, the heaviest in years between the neighbours, have boosted 33-year-old Manet's military credentials, observers say, a small victory for Prime Minister Hun Sen as the row with Thailand rumbles on.
Described as "a pretty humble guy" by a Phnom Penh-based diplomat who has met Manet on several occasions, the first-born of Hun Sen's six children does not seek out the spotlight.
Much has been made in Cambodia of his foreign education and despite his young age, Manet is already chief of the ministry of defence's anti-terrorism unit as well as deputy commander of his father's personal bodyguard unit.
He was promoted to a two-star general in January, a move that prompted some observers to suggest he was being groomed to succeed his father, 59, who has ruled Cambodia since 1985 -- making him the longest-serving Asian leader.
The premier hit back, saying Manet -- who graduated from the US Military Academy at West Point in 1999 and earned a doctorate in economics from Britain's University of Bristol -- was well-qualified for the roles.
"He has been in the army for 16 years and there is promotion within the army ranks," Hun Sen said at the time.
Chhaya Hang, executive director of the Khmer Institute of Democracy, a local policy group, believes the premier is trying to consolidate power by "orchestrating the future of Cambodia's leadership".
"We saw a similar story last year when the North Korean president promoted his son to a four-star general," he said.
When a long-running border dispute with Thailand boiled over earlier this month, resulting in four days of deadly violence, Thai news outlets were quick to point out Manet's role in the fighting.
Some even claimed -- wrongly -- that he had been injured.
Hun Sen set the record straight, explaining in a speech that his son was involved in border strategy and negotiations with Thai counterparts -- from the safety of the Cambodian capital.
"Manet is so famous in Thailand now," said Hun Sen, sounding like a proud father as he took a swipe at the Thai reports.
"The invaders curse you, son," he said, before adding jokingly: "Let's fight, son, your father encourages you."
A few days after the violence died down, Manet travelled to the tense border to meet troops, stepping into the limelight at last.
"He paid a visit and encouraged our troops at the frontline," said a Cambodian field military commander who did not wish to be named. "He also gave some advice to our soldiers regarding fighting tactics and self-defence."
Many of the Cambodian soldiers on the border are thought to be former Khmer Rouge fighters hardened by decades of the now-over civil war.
The visit appeared to serve the purpose of exposing Manet to a "real war situation", said Chhaya Hang, that would help to "legitimise his role in the military as one of the modern world's youngest generals".
But some analysts cautioned that it was important not to overstate the importance of Manet's rapid rise to prominence.
"Ordinary Cambodian people don't feel too concerned" about his career progression and where it might eventually lead, said political commentator Son Soubert.
He also said it was too soon to speculate whether the premier was paving the way for his son to take the top job, hinting at opposition within the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) to the idea.
"Many people think he is being groomed to succeed his father but whether he will succeed in convincing everyone in the CPP circle is another question," said Soubert.
If Manet is to rise to the top, he may have to wait a long time -- his father has vowed to stay in power until he is 90.
"I think for the moment that we should take Prime Minister Hun Sen's statements about staying on in his role for many years to come at face value," said Milton Osborne, a visiting fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney.