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Challenges for Cambodian Diplomacy

By: Norbert Klein Posted: November-02-2010 in
Norbert Klein

The Mirror, Vol. 14, No. 688

With the visit of the Secretary General of the United Nations during the last week, the arrival of the Secretary of State of the United States at the weekend, the Prime Minister also involved with the ASEAN Summit in Hanoi, and the Cambodia Defense Minister in Thailand, it was probably one of the most intensive weeks of dealing with diplomatic relations and questions, and delicate problems.

This is not an attempt to provide an overview on all these events and their mutual relations. Rather there will be only some pointers and observations – like already during the week – on differences and changes in positions, which indicate that relations are developing and moving, clarifying mutual understandings and – finally – trying to find some common ground, even where it may not seem probable that it can be achieved. And it is no surprise that, even where there is good-will, patience and time will be needed, and only the passing of time will show where the future leads.

Cambodia and United Nations relations – another surprising change. A Phnom Penh Post report opened a story again which had seemed to be closed:

The government has apparently done an about face on its stance over the closure of the United Nations human rights office in Phnom Penh. An official has contradicted previous claims that the government had requested the unconditional closure of the office.

In a meeting with visiting UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon on Wednesday, Prime Minister Hun Sen proposed that Christophe Peschoux, the long-time head of the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, resign from his post. “If Mr. Peschoux is not removed, then the UN human rights office in Phnom Penh will be closed,” Foreign Minister Hor Namhong said after the meeting.

Information Minister Khieu Kanharith confirmed later that the office would be closed regardless, quoting Hun Sen as having requested the closure of the OHCHR office on the grounds that “other countries in the world don’t have human rights offices, and Cambodia doesn’t want this office either.”

Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong has backed away from Khieu Kanharith’s comments, insisting the government would ask the UN to close the office only as a last resort… Koy Kuong said said Peschoux had failed to adhere to the agreement between the government and the UN that established the office. “We don’t just want to close it, we just want the UN to replace Christophe Peschoux,” he said. “If they do not replace him, they [the UN] should close down the office.”

He called the OHCHR “unnecessary” and said there were countless human rights groups capable of filling its role…

The Cambodian government considers the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights as “unnecessary” – but does not want to be accused to have it ordered closed. Now the United Nations will have to decide how to react to this new situation.

The ASEAN Summit provided another opportunity for the prime ministers of Cambodia and Thailand to talk to each other. While more details may become known later, it has already been reported by the Cambodian Minister of Foreign Affairs that the Cambodian Prime Minister used the opportunity to again deny allegations that the Red Shirt leader Arisman Pongruengrong had fled to Cambodia – while media in Thailand had even claimed that he and all together eleven others had received military training in Cambodia.

The words of the Cambodian Defense Minister Tea Banh, quoted in the Bangkok Post, are not as brief and succinct:

Cambodian Defense Minister Tea Banh yesterday denied that red shirt leader Arisman Pongruangrong was in hiding in his country. The remark came in the wake of a report from Thai authorities that Mr Arisman entered Cambodia with a fake exit stamp from Thai immigration. Mr. Arisman is wanted on charges of terrorism in connection with political violence during the red shirt protests.

When asked if Mr. Arisman was in Cambodia, General Tea Banh said he did not know.

When asked if Cambodia would extradite Mr. Arisman if he was hiding there, he said: “That I said ‘I didn’t know’ means he’s not in Cambodia. If he is, we would have known about it.”

When asked about a report by Thai authorities that a group of red shirt supporters underwent weapons training in Cambodia, he said he was not comfortable discussing the issue. He said certain issues were delicate and too sensitive to address.

The circumspect wording of the Cambodian Defense Minister is understandable, remembering that in July 2010, information from Thailand had claimed that two Thai citizens, Mr. Kobchai Boonplod and Ms. Varisareeya Boonsom, accused of having been involved in a bombing affair, were arrested in Siem Reap. This happened after Cambodian authorities had repeatedly denounced related reports as “provocative” and part of a “malicious campaign to fault Cambodia,” and the spokesperson of the Cambodian Ministry of Foreign Affairs had called these allegations “stupid.”

The Cambodia visit of the US Secretary of State is part of an Asia tour – it is “to strengthen bilateral cooperation and friendship between the two countries” and it is “intended to send a strong message of continued US engagement with Cambodia.” There had been recently some special events of cooperation – some were met with surprise in the public – like visits from US warships, with their staff doing medical services at the time of the port calls, and the major international military exercise “Angkor Sentinel” in July 2010 with more than 1,000 military personnel from 26 countries, to train peacekeepers. But there is still the controversy about a debt of over US$300 million from the time of the Lon Nol government, not yet paid back. While the US government has so far considered that funds contracted between governments as loans have to be handled as a loans – and repaid – Cambodia has repeatedly argued that this loan should not be repaid, as it was contracted by a disgraced government during the time of, and not unrelated to, the war in Vietnam – and it should be waived.

Other voices see this visit of the US Secretary of State in a wider geopolitical context, where the People’s Republic of China and the United States of America are in a process of re-evaluating their mutual international roles and spheres of interest, and probing how to see them developed and implemented.

This article was first published by The Mirror, Vol. 14, No. 688 - Sunday, 31.10.2010
Have a look at the last editorial - you can access it directly from the main page of The Mirror.

Norbert Klein is the Editor of The Mirror – The Mirror is a daily comprehensive summary and translation of the major Khmer language press - More about The Mirror


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