By Prak Chan Thul
PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen will dispense with three cabinet members as part of a rare shakeup of his government's ageing leadership ahead of an election in 2018 expected to be the country's closest yet.
But experts said the changes were cosmetic and unlikely to trigger any shift in policy.
According to a list of proposed changes submitted to parliament and seen by Reuters on Friday, Hun Sen will part company with a foreign minister who has served him for 18 years.
Hun Sen accepted the resignation of Hor Namhong, 80, who has in recent years dealt with numerous diplomatic blow-ups, including heated and at times violent rows with neighboring Thailand.
He chaired an acrimonious meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2012 in which he was accused of bowing to pressure from ally China to scuttle a joint ASEAN communique for the first time in its 45-year history. He will be replaced by Prak Sokhon, the telecommunications minister.
Deputy Prime Minister Keat Chhon and Im Chhun Lim, the land management minister, will also be dropped.
Commerce Minister Sun Chanthol will become transport minister, replacing Tram Iv Tek, who takes the telecommunications portfolio. The legislature is expected to approve the changes on April 4.
Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party (CPP) almost lost the 2013 election in 2013 to the resurgent opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).
CPP is trying to recoup some popularity in what could be the biggest test to Hun Sen's three-decade rule.
Ear Sophal, an associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles, called the changes the "same old wine in a new bottle".
CNRP lawmaker Mu Sochua said if the move was really about reform, the justice and health ministers would be sacked.
"It's more or less the same," she said. "It is not about reshuffling the cabinet, but in-depth reforms that the people want to see."
(Editing by Martin Petty and Nick Macfie)