Prime Minister Hun Sen and National Assembly President Heng Samrin were awarded the inaugural Peace and Development award on Tuesday by the Union Media in Asean (UMA), a Thailand-based media association friendly with the military junta.
At the award ceremony for Mr. Samrin at the Assembly, UMA secretary-general Prasit Sangrungrueng explained the criteria for the award.
“The person has to provide advantage to their citizens, build achievements and be recognized by their own country and by the world,” he said.
He said Mr. Samrin qualified for having helped wrest Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge as a leader of the Vietnamese-backed forces that toppled Pol Pot in 1979 and for subsequently helping develop the country and—he claimed—turn it into a democracy.
“Samdech Samrin led the forces to save the people and bring democracy,” he said. “The Cambodian people live comfortably now and have a high GDP in Asean. Cambodia now has roads and tall buildings. Compared to the past, the present is very different.”
Cambodia remains one of the poorest countries in the Asean bloc, however, and in Transparency International’s latest corruption perceptions index it ranked dead-last among the 10 member states. It regularly ranks near the bottom on international indexes of democratic freedoms.
At his own award ceremony on Tuesday at his office building, Mr. Hun Sen said he had brushed aside many a proffered award but accepted this one in the hopes of fostering good regional relations, going on to paint himself as a champion of the free press.
“Should I explain why I have to receive this award?” Mr. Hun Sen asked rhetorically.
“I accept this award because I want our neighboring media associations to become one institution in order to strengthen cooperation in our region,” he said.
“You people here treat me like a democrat,” he added. “But to my competitors, I am just a dictator.”
“You have to think clearly. Cambodia once had only two black-and-white newspapers, one AM radio broadcaster and one black-and-white television station. Now we have 20 television channels and about 800 newspapers and magazines. To go from so few to this, is a person a dictator?”
Last year, the Paris-based group Reporters Without Borders ranked Cambodia 139th out of 180 countries in its press freedom index. Most of the country’s news outlets are controlled by or affiliated with the ruling CPP.
The organization behind Tuesday’s award, UMA, organized a press junket for Cambodian journalists in Thailand in the months after the country’s 2014 military coup to defend the junta’s crackdown on illegal migrant workers.
Suon Bunsak, executive secretary of the Cambodian Human Rights
Action Committee, said he was puzzled by the decision to award Mr. Hun Sen a prize for development.
“I wonder, too, because development in Cambodia has caused the violation of human rights…for example, the case of Boeng Kak,” he said, referring to the Phnom Penh community from which thousands of families were forced out of their homes to make way for a CPP senator’s real estate project.
“The meaning of ‘development’ does not match the real situation, because where there is development in Cambodia, there is suffering.”