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Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Cambodia’s Hun Sen Proves A Feisty Asean Chair

By Martin Vaughan

Cambodian 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, and used the occasion to deliver a feisty harangue against his domestic political enemies.

Deriding his critics as “crazy analysts” and “stupid philosophers,” 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.

While he didn’t mention any of his foes by name, he taunted one by mentioning several times an analyst with a “bald head.” People present suggested it might refer to Lao Mong Hay, a human rights activist and vocal critic of Hun Sen’s government who earlier in the week made comments to local news outlets about the powerful influence of China in the tiny Southeast Asian nation – a sensitive topic there.

Mr. Lao Mong Hay implied in his comments that the visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao to Phnom Penh two days before the Asean summit was designed to pressure Cambodia to soft-pedal disputes over competing territorial claims in the South China Sea during talks this week. The subject of the South China Sea came up repeatedly during the Asean summit, with some Southeast Asian nations pressing for a common stance on conflicts in the resource-rich waters, while China has worked to keep the topic off of Asean’s agenda as much as possible.

Mr. Hun Sen also lambasted members of the opposition in the National Assembly who had complained, wrongly he said, of undue Chinese influence. “They are not able lead the country if they are involved in politics in such a silly way. . . Cambodia is not going to be bought by anyone,” he said.

Mr. Hun Sen’s outburst was all the more surprising given that this week’s summit represents a powerful opportunity for Cambodia to burnish its reputation on the international stage. Although it’s one of the smallest countries in Southeast Asia, with about 15 million people, it has seen its tourist industry and broader economy take off in recent years after the country stabilized following years of political chaos during and after the Khmer Rouge era. Each year a different Southeast Asian country takes over as Asean chair and hosts its key summits; despite his reputation as something of a maverick, many analysts had expected Mr. Hun Sen to focus attention on statesman-like issues such as regional stability and economic development rather than highlighting domestic political disputes.

Mr. Hun Sen’s the tirade went on for close to 30 minutes. Mr. Hun Sen handled a question on the Myanmar elections before another question on China set him going again against his critics. One hour and fifteen minutes after the press conference had begun, Southeast Asia’s longest-serving leader declared it was time for lunch.

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