Hun Sen Denies China Influencing Cambodia

Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday hit back at claims that China had influenced Cambodia’s actions as chair of Asean, insisting that the visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao last weekend was not related to this week’s Asean Summit. Speaking at the closing of the summit at his office building in Phnom Penh, Mr. Hun Sen used much of a question-and-answer session with international media and local journalists to lampoon a local political analyst as well as opposition leader Sam Rainsy.

While praising China for its infrastructure investment in Asean countries and Beijing’s stabilizing influence in the 2008 global financial crisis, in which it “played a role to help rescue the world,” Mr. Hun Sen asked that the media not indulge “crazy analysis” suggesting that Cambodia was being manipulated by China.

Mr. Hun Sen responded to claims that Cambodia’s stance on the South China Sea–one of the key talking points at the Asean Summit–had been influenced by China.

“I would like to stress that the leaders of China never behave in a way to put pressure or persuade on this issue and Cambodia is not goods to be bought by anyone as a sovereign state and as a responsible member of Asean,” the prime minister said.

Mr. Hu arrived in Cambodia on Friday in the first visit of a Chinese leader since 2000, which saw huge portraits of the president and his wife, Liu Yongqing, beside members of the Cambodian royal family. He departed Monday after promising increased aid and trade to Cambodia, the day before Asean heads of state began meeting in Phnom Penh.

“It is irrelevant to Asean. It is not planned to influence. Some crazy analysis said the visit of Hu Jintao was a visit to persuade, to pressure,” Mr. Hun Sen said.

Instead, the prime minister said that Mr. Hu’s visit was “planned-a [prearranged] agreement between the government of Cambodia and the people of China. If he doesn’t come now, he’ll come later.”

Mr. Hun Sen made repeated allusions to a local political analyst, believed to be Lao Mong Hay–who had suggested that Cambodia was being influenced by China–calling him a “stupid philosopher.”

“He is also a bonehead,” said Mr. Hun Sen, who did not mention Mr. Mong Hay by name. “Sorry, I use these strong words because I have been putting up with this for one month,” he added.

Mr. Hun Sen also attacked opposition party leader Sam Rainsy, who last week wrote a letter to Mr. Hu saying that discussion of the South China Sea issue should only be discussed bilaterally between claimant countries, including China-seemingly excluding Asean from the process. The SRP has in the past criticized growing debt to China and the large number of economic land concessions given to Chinese companies.

Mr. Hun Sen called Mr. Rainsy’s letter “opportunist politics.” “If they have a chance to govern the country, what will it lead the country to? They will lead Cambodia out of Asean,” Mr. Hun Sen said.

Contacted yesterday, Mr. Mong Hay said he was concerned that Mr. Hun Sen had referred to him. However, he said, “the prime minister responding to a comment by a citizen, I’m not proud, but when a comment has attracted the attention of our leader, it’s something.”

During Mr. Hu’s weekend visit, he pledged to double bilateral trade to Cambodia to $5 billion in the next five years and promised more than $70 million of grants and loans. Cambodia’s total indebtedness to China is more than $2 billion, according to the government. Loans from China to Cambodia have less favorable rates of interest than other donors, but have no strings attached.

“China is a big country, but it always respects the decision of other countries,” Mr. Hun Sen said. “With other [donor] countries, if Cambodia does not abide by them, they threaten to cut the assistance,” he said.

Mr. Hun Sen also claimed that, as a result of conditional aid, Cambodia had more independence in the 1980s when Vietnamese troops were stationed in the country, than in more recent times, when it has relied heavily on aid from international lending organizations and donors.

Mr. Hun Sen gave the example of an international aid agency that allegedly told him he had to privatize Cambodia’s customs. “They said you can get assistance if you agree to privatize the customs,” he said. “But it meant that I agree to sell sovereignty.”

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) was involved in trying to bring in firms to run independent inspections on Cambodia’s customs amid massive smuggling in the 1990s that cost the country much needed tax revenue. In 1999, the government terminated a contract with independent monitor Societe Generale de Surveillance of Geneva, who had been carrying out inspections of imported goods in an IMF-backed project to ensure that customs tax was being paid, and the money was entering the government’s coffers. Goods smuggling remains a major issue.

(Additional reporting by Phorn Bopha)

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