By Prak Chan Thul
PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - Cambodia's ruling party named three sons of long-time Prime Minister Hun Sen to its upper ranks on Sunday as part of a bid to rejuvenate its leadership and claw back support lost at the last general election.
The elevation of Hun Sen's sons within the Cambodian People's Party (CPP) has fueled speculation the 62-year-old strongman is positioning his dynasty to succeed him after 30 years in power and triggered at least one accusation of nepotism.
Rights groups also said some of 306 members added to the CPP's central committee might have played a role in the violent anti-government protests after the disputed 2013 election.
The CPP has governed the country since 1979, but was returned to power in 2013 with a greatly reduced majority, losing many seats to the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). The next election, scheduled for 2018, is expected to be closely fought.
CPP spokesman and Information Minister Khieu Kanharith said the party's decision-making body needed younger members to increase its appeal in a country where half the population is under 30.
The CPP also increased the number of women on its central committee, according to a list obtained by Reuters on Monday after a three-day party congress ended on Sunday. The additional 306 members more than doubled the committee's size to 545.
The new committee members include not just Hun Sen's sons and son-in-law, but also the commander of his personal bodyguard unit, Phnom Penh's police chief, the military police chief and the naval commander - all powerful loyalists.
Hun Manet, 37, the oldest son and heir apparent, graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1999. Now a three-star general, he leads Cambodia's national counterterrorism task force and is deputy commander of his father's much-feared Bodyguards Unit.
The second son, Hun Manith, 34, is a brigadier general, while the youngest, Hun Many, 31, is a lawmaker and head of the CPP youth movement.
"Hun Sen has been planning and plotting the succession plan for a long time," said independent political analyst Ou Virak.
"The real power will be with the eldest son."
Prominent rights group Licadho said some of those on the list were implicated in the bloody crackdown on street protests in 2014 that killed five garment workers and left dozens injured.
"Such promotions demonstrate that gross human rights violations are rewarded by the CPP," said Licadho director Naly Pilorge. Promoting Hun Sen's sons and son-in-law showed the party's "systematic nepotism", she said.
The CNRP claimed Hun Sen cheated his way to victory in the 2013 election and launched months of post-election street protests. The CPP and CNRP in July agreed a truce that ended the year of turmoil.
(Editing by Simon Webb, Andrew R.C. Marshall and Nick Macfie)