As the birthday of Prime Minister Hun Sen approaches, local newspapers have seen their pages padded—and their profits bolstered—by numerous advertisements wishing the soon-to-be 58-year-old premier a happy birthday.
The bright and colorful advertisements, purchased by high-ranking government officials and business leaders, fill the pages of daily papers such as Kampuchea Thmey, Koh Santepheap and Rasmei Kampuchea. Showering him with kind words and well-wishes, the ads feature photographs of Hun Sen, often smiling beside his wife.
“On the occasion of turning from 58 to 59 years old and Khmer New Year…please Samdech [Hun Sen] have good health, long life, strong strength and the brilliance to lead and develop the nation,” read one of the many announcements found in Wednesday’s edition of Rasmei Kampuchea Daily.
According to official documents, the premier should actually be turning 58 this year but in 2004 he said he had mistakenly reported April 4, 1951, as his date of birth when he became a soldier in 1970. His actual date of birth is Aug 5, 1952, he said at the time.
Advertisers say their gestures are benign or merely out of respect but some find the practice suspect, bordering on lobbying and vying for special treatment.
“This action is absolutely to lure [the leader’s] heart,” SRP lawmaker Yim Sovann said. “Normally, the gift givers are always expecting much more than their given gift… that’s the way of bribery.”
Although declining to discuss exact figures, several newspapers said the days leading up to the premier’s birthday on April 4 are beneficial to their bottom lines.
Pen Samithy, editor-in-chief of Rasmei Kampuchea and president of the Club of Cambodian Journalists, said the birthday wishes usually begin to trickle in during late March and continue until a few days after Hun Sen’s birthday. He said the paper runs about 10 announcements per day, making it one of the most profitable weeks during the year.
According to Thai Kuneary, marketing officer for Rasmei Kampuchea Daily, a color, quarter-page ad running on a back page can cost up to $350. A similar half-page ad is priced at about $700.
Business manager for Koh Santepheap Daily, Thong Sovanraingsey, said birthday advertisements for Hun Sen total about 100 per year, which means that people need to book space one or two weeks in advance.
“Generally, Samdech Hun Sen birthday advertising is the highest,” she said.
Kwann Seam, director of the engineering unit of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, said he and his subordinates bought an ad in Wednesday’s Kampuchea Thmey Daily to thank the premier and wish him well.
“This is just showing our gratitude, loyalty for Samdech Hun Sen,” he said Wednesday. “Wishing the leader a happy birthday is not against the law.”
Pen Samithy said the custom of printed birthday announcements is an Asian tradition and not a political objective.
“If we read Filipino, Thai or Hong Kong newspapers, there are many wishing advertisements. It is not a political issue. It is the Asian culture,” he said.
In the end, the messages might be all for naught.
Speaking March 9 during the inauguration of a new pagoda in Kompong Speu, Hun Sen said this year he would not be celebrating his birthday. Instead, he will pass the day visiting disabled veterans in Kampot province.
“No birthday! No acceptance of flowers. I won’t accept any birthday gifts,” Hun Sen told the crowd. “I’m tired of celebrating my birthday.”