By Kris Janssens
PHNOM PENH, Oct 28 2022 (IPS) – Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen walks into a diplomatic minefield these days. He supports UN resolutions against Putin but does not want to jeopardize the long-standing friendship with Russia. At the same time, he tries to be less dependent on the West, both economically and politically.
Last month, Cambodia backed the United Nations (UN) resolution condemning Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian territories. Earlier this year, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen also signed a resolution against the invasion of Ukraine. As a result, the Russian ambassador to Cambodia Anatoly Borovik posted a rather vicious message on Twitter. “It was Moscow that assisted Phnom Penh in the most difficult period in its history”, Borovik wrote to refresh Cambodia’s memory. It is a reference to the long-standing
“Right now, Russia has a good understanding with most countries in Southeast Asia. For example, the new Philippine president wants a better relationship with Moscow, we have excellent contacts with Myanmar, Vietnam, and Laos, but less with Cambodia.” friendship between the two countries.
This friendship goes back to the mid-1950s when Cambodia just gained independence from France and the Soviet Union supported the then king Norodom Sihanouk, who didn’t want to choose sides between the West and the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War.
But Borovik’s tweet refers to the 1980s when the Vietnamese army took control of Cambodia after having ousted Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot from power.
The United States had not yet digested the Vietnam War and wanted this Vietnamese occupier to leave. Various Western countries supported this demand. Cambodia urgently needed emergency aid, after the devastation of the Khmer Rouge, but was boycotted. Only a limited number of countries, with the Soviet Union in the lead, tried to get food and medicines to the affected population.
“When I came to Cambodia in 1984, as a reporter for the state news agency TASS, there were also many Russian doctors, technicians, and engineers”, says Russian professor Dmitry Mosyakov about that period. Today he is head of the center for Southeast Asia at the Institute of Oriental Studies in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh. “The Soviets were very close to the Cambodians, almost like a family”, Mosyakov recalls.
Prime Minister Hun Sen
One year after Mosyakov’s arrival, in 1985, Cambodia gets a new prime minister: Hun Sen. He is a former Khmer Rouge soldier who later defected and was brought to power by the Vietnamese. Today, 37 years later, he is still in office. He rules the country with an iron fist, has opposition leaders thrown in jail, and manipulates the elections. The United States and the European Union are watching disapprovingly.
That’s why it is striking that the European lobby has been able to convince Hun Sen to support a pro-Western resolution against Russia. “This is because Cambodia is still economically dependent on the American and European markets for export. The prime minister wants to change this in due course, for example, he is currently looking at the Eurasian Economic Union, led by Russia,” says Cambodian journalist Chhengpor Aun. He writes about his country’s foreign policy for ‘Voice of America’ and ‘The Diplomat’, among others.
To keep the line with Moscow open, Cambodia has only signed UN resolutions with a humanitarian undertone. “For example, Cambodia supported a declaration on the protection of civilians, but abstained when the vote to suspend the rights of Russia in the UN Rights Council was taken”, explains Chhengpor Aun.
Professor Dmitry Mosyakov deplores Cambodia’s ambiguous attitude. “It was good that our ambassador referred to the 1980s and the support Cambodia received back then,” he responds. “Right now, Russia has a good understanding with most countries in Southeast Asia. For example, the new Philippine president wants a better relationship with Moscow, we have excellent contacts with Myanmar, Vietnam, and Laos, but less with Cambodia.”
When ideological ties to communism were severed in the early 1990s, the relations between the two countries cooled down. Russian aid was reduced in a very short time and the West regained influence.
Because of this historical link, some veterans of Hun Sen’s party would rather not support UN resolutions against Putin. “This is nothing more than a sentiment from the past,” says journalist Chhengpor Aun. “In any case, the Prime Minister’s foreign policy is much more pragmatic than his authoritarian domestic policy.”
Coup de theatre
Chhengpor Aun thus refers to a major coup de theatre that awaits Cambodian politics. Hun Sen has announced that he will make his son Hun Manet prime minister next summer, albeit after the national elections. “This will be the last and most important game in Hun Sen’s long career,” Mosyakov says. “I think a lot will change with the son in power, including international relations.”
Evidently, the West disapproves of this undemocratic shift in power, but Hun Sen does not want the EU or the US to interfere in his political plans. Nevertheless, the western countries are at the table during the ASEAN summit, which traditionally takes place in November and which Cambodia is chairing this time.
Between East and West
ASEAN is the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, but several major world leaders are also invited to the annual meeting. An American, a European, but also a Chinese, and a Russian delegation is expected in Phnom Penh.
“As the Khmer proverb goes, ‘merl gee, merl aing’, the Prime Minister will have to look closely at the others and at himself, to make sure he doesn’t say anything wrong,” Chhengpor Aun summarises the situation. Hun Sen will need everyone around the table to make his economic and political plans work.
In any case, history seems to be repeating itself. Just like during the Cold War, a small country like Cambodia is suddenly right in the middle between East and West.