Once or twice a month, weeks of government planning culminates as a black Mercedes with darkened windows glides beneath banners and past school kids standing in a neat line along the route from Pochentong Airport to Independence Monument.
A lot of time, money and flags go into greeting foreign dignitaries. But who you are determines how many dollars the National and International Festival Committee spends and how many children wave flags at you.
On July 17 North Korea’s No 2 leader, Kim Yong Nam arrived to one of Phnom Penh’s larger, more expensive greetings.
“During the North Korean visit we planned 120,000 people, 100,000 were students,” said Min Khin, the permanent deputy director of the National and International Festival Committee that helps prepare the welcomings. “For each state visit we spend hundreds of millions of riel”—or tens of thousands of dollars.
Members of the committee declined to discuss their budgets more specifically.
When China’s President Jiang Zemin visited Cambodia in November he received a similar welcome and the organizers of the welcoming scrambled to get more than 20,000 students out of the Cambodia’s Chinese schools and onto the street holding portraits of him.
Members of Switzerland’s legislature who departed Phnom Penh on Wednesday, on the other hand, were greeted by 20 banners, 10 in Khmer and 10 in French.
Thai Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn received a mid-sized greeting with 60,000 students lining Norodom Boulevard for her recent visit.
A head of state might get 65 banners and 1000 lamp post flags, said Sar Vuthy, director of the Cultural Development Bureau in the Ministry of Culture. State visits also get 65 large Cambodian flags and 65 of the visitor’s home country. A lower-level member of a foreign government might only get 20 banners and no flags, he said.
The banners cost around $25 to make, the flags about $6, Sar Vuthy said.
Considering that the Switzerland has much more money to aid Cambodia than North Korea, the difference might seem at odds with pragmatic diplomacy. But the welcomings are based less on finances and more on the rank of the visitor and the friendship of their government with Cambodia, said Kao Kim Hourn, executive director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace. It’s a tradition that goes back to the 1950s, he said.
“This is part of Cambodian diplomacy,” he said. “Every foreign leader has to be made to feel at home.
“How close the relationship determines how elaborate the process of welcoming,” he added.
Thirty workers, including five artists, who work out of an office in Phnom Penh, create the banners and flags. They write the slogans and hang and remove the decorations. They can crank out 25 banners a day.
But before a banner is painted the language has to be checked. Officials at the Korean embassy, for example, checked the language on banners for Kim Yong Nam’s visit.
“We are accustomed to Khmer, English or French but we had trouble writing Korean, Laotian, Thai and Malaysian languages,” Sar Vuthy said. “We just draw it but we do not know whether it is right or wrong. It takes a long time to imitate those letters.”
Inevitably, there are problems. When officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs came to check the banners, they asked that they read “P.D.R. Korea”—as in People’s Democratic Republic of Korea—not just “Korea,” which the artists had painted. Otherwise, the officials said, people won’t know if the North or South is visiting.
“We had to cut the banners and reconnect them,” Sar Vuthy recalled. “Sometimes we throw out the old one and make a new one instead.”
Kim Yong Nam’s visit coincided with Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn’s, throwing the banner makers into overdrive. As she left on the morning of July 17, workers scurried to get things ready for Kim Yong Nam’s arrival at 11 am. “Such coincidence,” Sar Vuthy said. “We worked very, very hard to meet the visits.”
At least three ministries usually plan the welcome, starting around 10 days or more in advance in the hope that everything goes off without a hitch. It takes two days to put up the banners for a state visit, another two to take them down.
The festival committee prepares the decorations on about 10 days notice. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs arranges meals, accommodation, parties and car rentals. The Ministry of Interior prepares the motorcade and arranges the hundreds of police who control traffic, guard the visitors and appear at ceremonies. Important visitors might have 2,000 security officers, lesser visitors get about 500. The Council of Ministers takes care of gifts and transports the dignitary’s baggage.
The schools are given as much as a month’s notice. The children, who are taken out of school and walked to their assigned posts, come from grades 4 through 8, and 10 and 11. Students in other grades, said Um Hoeung, director of the Phnom Penh Educational Department, “are too busy preparing for their diplomas.” He only uses students from schools along the motorcade route.
The students, each wearing a badge and carrying a small, 100 riel flag—kept as souvenirs—are instructed to stand a half-meter away from one another. If a student passes out or feels faint waiting in the hot sun, they are moved to a shady area, Um Hoeung said.
“They usually wait for one hour before the guests arrive, but some students like to come two hours before,” Um Hoeung said.
“I like it. I have fun,” said Meas Sakda, 15, an eighth grader at Chaktomuk junior high school. “I have a chance to see the leaders of the two countries. As the host, we must welcome them.”
It’s better if the foreign dignitaries arrive in the morning, Um Hoeung said. After 11 am the children get antsy with hunger, he said.
The students are not provided with water, unless they are stationed at the airport. If the time runs past 11:30 am, the government buys lunch.
Chea Vannath president of the Center for Social Development of Cambodia said it is the student’s duty to raise the reputation of their country and to encourage competition and solidarity among schools. She recalled waiting much longer in the sun to get a souvenir flag when she was a child.
“It’s a tradition in the culture and society,” Kao Kim Hourn said. “It can be expensive. But given the fact that Cambodia really needs to build better diplomacy and relations this kind of ceremony is necessary.”
(Additional reporting by Matt Sweeney)