Nine days after he put a brutal end to labor protests and mass opposition demonstrations in Phnom Penh, Prime Minister Hun Sen looked to be in top form Monday as he joined Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung—on a three-day state visit to Cambodia—for a conference at his “Peace Palace” office, where rising investment from Vietnam was celebrated.
Speaking to hundreds of bureaucrats and businessmen from both sides of the border, Mr. Hun Sen reported a sharp increase in investment capital coming from Vietnamese companies over the past year—from $85.75 million in 2012 to $302.66 million in 2013—and said that Vietnam’s official ranking as the 11th-largest investor in the country did not represent the actual amount of money coming in from Cambodia’s eastern neighbor.
“In reality Vietnamese investors are standing in the third place already [in foreign direct investment],” Mr. Hun Sen said.
“But if we look at the paper, Vietnamese investors are in 10th or 11th place,” he said, adding that, in reality, only China and South Korea were providing more capital to businesses in Cambodia than Vietnam.
Mr. Hun Sen was referencing data from the Cambodian Chamber of Commerce (CCC), which places Vietnam as the 10th-largest source of foreign investment the country. The CCC also places Vietnam as Cambodia’s sixth-largest trading partner.
While the resurgent opposition CNRP has made Vietnam’s historical influence over Mr. Hun Sen one of its rallying cries for his resignation, Monday’s events were all about further strengthening those historic neighborly ties.
“I hope the Vietnamese government, led by His Excellency Nguyen Tan Dung, will continue to support Cambodia via further promotion of cooperation in all fields aiming to improve Cambodia’s socio-economic situation,” Mr. Hun Sen said.
And while the CNRP condemned the number and practices of Vietnamese-owned land concession companies in Cambodia during its now crushed street protests, Mr. Hun Sen on Monday lobbied Vietnamese companies to continue to invest in the agriculture sector, particularly agro-processing plants.
“Vietnam has a high capacity for processing, while Cambodia is rich in raw materials but its processing capacity remains low,” Mr. Hun Sen said. “For example, Cambodia has millions of tons of cassava, but Cambodia just harvests it and cuts it into pieces for export.”
Mr. Tan Dung, who also joined Mr. Hun Sen for a ribbon cutting ceremony Monday morning at the new, Vietnamese-funded Cho Ray Phnom Penh hospital, called on Cambodia’s government to increase efforts to facilitate fruitful Vietnamese investment in the country.
“I hope the Cambodian government, as well as state institutions and ministries, pays a lot of attention to making things more convenient for Vietnamese companies to efficiently invest in Cambodia,” Mr. Tan Dung said, adding that there are currently 128 Vietnamese investment projects in the country worth up to $3 billion.
As a host of speakers addressed the audience, the two leaders, seated in the center of an ornate stage at Mr. Hun Sen’s palatial offices, chatted and joked together, with Mr. Hun Sen at one point showing his Vietnamese counterpart images on his smartphone.
In a 2008 interview with the Financial Times, Mr. Tan Dung said that he fought in Cambodia against the Khmer Rouge after the Pol Pot regime was toppled in 1979. Mr. Hun Sen, who defected from the Khmer Rouge in 1978 and fled to Vietnam, was part of the same fight and was appointed by Vietnam as prime minister of then-socialist People’s Republic of Kampuchea in 1985.
CNRP President Sam Rainsy said Monday that the timing of Mr. Hun Sen’s recent visit to Vietnam and Mr. Tan Dung’s visit to Phnom Penh effectively bookended the government’s violent suppression of demonstrations and served to reinforce his belief that Vietnam continues to have a nefarious hand in Cambodia’s domestic affairs.
“When Prime Minister Hun Sen came back to Cambodia, his return from Vietnam was followed by the deadly crackdown. So we suspect that the Vietnamese government must have given such advice to use violence against the population, and workers in particular,” Mr. Rainsy said.
“And now it is possible that the Vietnamese Prime Minister came to Cambodia to congratulate Hun Sen for following his advice in cracking down,” he added.
Mr. Hun Sen went to Vietnam to sign a wide range of pacts, including a credit agreement to build a bridge in Kandal province connecting the two countries, and successfully lobbied the Vietnamese government to sell an additional 30 MW of electricity to Cambodia each year.
Despite what he called Vietnam’s damaging policies toward Cambodia, Mr. Rainsy also said that Vietnam could, in many ways, serve as an example for Mr. Hun Sen’s government, particularly in setting term limits for the prime minister and tackling corruption.
“We can learn two things from Vietnam: one is a change in leadership from time to time, every five years or at most 10 years,” Mr. Rainsy said.
“Second is the lesson that Vietnam fights against corruption, they punish even high-ranking officials involved in corruption,” he said.
“Even though Vietnam is a communist country, the system works in a healthier way. They are more socially conscious. They help the population much better,” he added.