Days after the 20th Asean Summit in Phnom Penh ended on Wednesday, the stories continued to trickle in. But much of the latest news coverage of the event did not focus on Asean, the South China Sea issue, or China’s role in the summit-but rather on Prime Minister Hun Sen’s press conference closing the two-day conference. When Mr. Hun Sen spent the bulk of the conference talking about the opposition, the failures of a certain “bald-headed” independent analyst, and the value of China over other donors, local media didn’t blink. This is standard operating procedure in Cambodia: the prime minister’s speeches at graduations often include swipes at foreign governments, while road inaugurations have been used to blast opposition leader Sam Rainsy. Those less familiar with the prime minister’s rhetorical style, however, were surprised to say the least.
“Mr. Hun Sen jarred awake an international press corps of about 200 reporters that had steeled themselves for sunny talk of regional harmony and bland pronouncements on such Asean perennials as customs cooperation,” is how the Wall Street Journal’s Martin Vaughan described the scene in a story published last week.
“Prime Minister Hun Sen seemed to forget in a Wednesday press conference that he was speaking as the chair of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations bloc,” Mr. Vaughan noted.
The Bangkok Post on Friday published a long, tongue-in-cheek evocation of the scene. “[Y]ou lost the opportunity of a decade to show your leadership to the world by telling everyone how you would like to see Asean develop,” wrote Umesh Pandey.
“It was anything but the statesman-like performance expected of the chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations,” chimed in Luke Hunt of The Diplomat.
Indeed, after the conference, foreign journalists appeared nonplussed. Several confessed that they had never seen anything like it.
But to write Mr. Hun Sen’s performance off as provincialism or worse (“you managed to cement your image as a hard-bitten strongman,” the Bangkok Post’s Mr. Umesh alleged) is to underestimate him, analysts said yesterday.
“As the prime minister, he has learned a lot on how to deal with the media and the public,” said journalism professor and media analyst Moeun Chhean Nariddh. “It’s our job as the media to try and find a way to push him to answer. This is normal, for any prime minister, to try and avoid any aggressive questions.”
Read in this light, the “ramble,” as the Bangkok Post termed it, might have been one of the more clever plays to come out of the summit. For one thing, in a conference that lasted more than an hour and included a lengthy question-and-answer segment, only three reporters managed to actually ask questions.
“I believe we had only two questioners from the international or regional press. I do not see any other persons from the region asking questions,” noted political analyst Chea Vannath. “I do not want to jump to conclusions, but it did end with him saying no more questions. It was cut short.”
In the meantime, Cambodia managed to reassure China of its appreciation while preventing the South China Sea issue from being raised. And it did so without undermining any other Asean nation.
Despite the bad press, many Asean-watchers walked away from the summit with no particularly negative impressions of Cambodia as a chair.
When asked whether the country appeared to have been an effective chair, Cheng-Chwee Kuik, an Asean expert based at the National University of Malaysia, said most of the biggest questions regarding the South China Sea and long-awaited Code of Conduct (COC) governing disputes within the territory might be dictated by outside actors anyway.
“No one can say for sure just when and whether the COC will be coming out under Cambodia’s chairmanship, but I think it is not impossible that China and the Asean countries may reach some form of COC at some point, in part because Beijing wants to cool down the [South China Sea] imbroglio,” he wrote in an email.
Senior CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap, who last month was the one to announce that the South China Sea issue would not be on the summit agenda, said it was not at all unusual for Prime Minister Hun Sen to discuss his appreciation for China at length during the summit’s closing press conference.
“The cooperation between China and Cambodia is the ordinary problem among all countries in the world. Cambodia recognizes all countries who have been its friends and made assistance, especially within Asean.”