Whatever the true motive behind last week’s anti-Thai riots in Phnom Penh, newspapers, magazines and media outlets from South Korea to Australia are dumping the blame on Prime Minister Hun Sen in scathing commentaries that have chopped Cambodia’s international image to its lowest point in years.
The riots erupted as Cambodia entered its fifth year of relative peace and stability, and midway through the so-far stunningly successful yearlong chairmanship of Asean. Just last week, Hun Sen was enjoying a level of credibility—as a statesman—that he could not have dreamed of a few years ago.
Several hours of largely unchecked riots last Wednesday have changed all that.
In his first public appearance since the riots, Hun Sen claimed on Monday in Kampot province that he was innocent of any behind-the-scenes role in the mob violence, blaming unidentified extremists who he said had plotted for more than a year to inflame anti-Thai feelings.
However, opposition leader Sam Rainsy and the Thai government have locked Hun Sen squarely in the crosshairs of blame for comments the premier made on Jan 27 about Thai actress Suvanant Kongying, who, it appears now, unfairly found herself at the center of the Angkor Wat-ownership controversy.
“Hun Sen only has himself to blame for the rioting. It was his miscalculation in fomenting hatred for ‘anything Thai’ while on the election campaign trail,” the Korea Herald stated in an editorial on Monday headlined “Hun Sen Fumbled, Thaksin was Decisive.”
“Tough talks and getting people fired up with nationalistic frenzy eventually resulted in a wild mob getting out of control,” the newspaper stated.
The Australian Financial Review claimed on Monday there was “little doubt that Hun Sen or his cronies directly instigated the sacking of the Thai Embassy.”
Relying on nationalistic resentment against Thailand to win July’s general elections was “an ill-conceived, short-term ploy that sabotages attempts to rebuild the country’s devastated economy,” the Review claimed.
“Hun Sen may be returned to office on a tide of national resentment against Thailand, but whatever chance Cambodia had of rebuilding its economic infrastructure will have been sacrificed,” it said.
In Hong Kong, the South China Morning Post led with a more conciliatory message in an editorial headlined: “Hun Sen’s Chance to Redeem Himself.”
The night of violence did not reflect well on Hun Sen or his government, the Post said.
Hun Sen pandered to public sentiment by publicly criticizing Suvanant, but the night of mob rule seemed to catch the premier and his government by surprise, the Post reported.
“A leader known for his strong-arm rule appeared neither in control nor in touch…. If Hun Sen aspires to the status of a statesman he must mend fences and ensure the quick resumption of the tourism trade which benefits both countries,” the newspaper added.
While both Bangkok and Phnom Penh are talking compensation and reconciliation over last week’s riots, the events have left a deeply negative impression among Thai officials and the Thai public.
Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said on his weekly radio show on Saturday that Cambodia’s “gutter politics” were to be found at the root of the riots, the South China Morning Post reported.
Foreign diplomats in Phnom Penh say suspicion surrounds the government’s slow response to last Wednesday’s riots. But they are stumped as to seeing any benefit that could accrue from allowing the riots to run their full course.
One Asian diplomat warned that laying sole blame with Hun Sen may be simplifying what could still be a very complex situation.
“I don’t think [it’s right] to look at one side…. I don’t buy it,” the diplomat said.
A second diplomat said the events have seriously damaged Hun Sen’s international image and could also cost him some popularity inside his own party.
One senior CPP member said on condition of anonymity on Monday that the atmosphere inside the ruling party was normal.
Some politicians, however, were criticizing the leadership of Hun Sen, though the official declined to identify from which party the criticism was emerging.
“If this happened outside Phnom Penh, the leaders of the area would be forced to resign and take responsibility,” the CPP official said.
“I don’t understand this,” he said. “I am extremely sorry that this violence went out of control. This could have been stopped if we did our job,” he said.