Prime Minister Hun Sen used the opening of a major international conference in Phnom Penh on Thursday morning to publicly question why former Australian Foreign Minister and Paris Peace Agreements architect Gareth Evans had attacked him in a scathing article last year.
Evans, once called the “father of Cambodia” by a senior CPP lawmaker, was seated awkwardly behind the premier on stage as he delivered the opening keynote address for a two-day Responsibility to Protect (R2P) conference at the Sofitel Phokeethra hotel.
Turning and directly facing Evans in front of numerous diplomats, dignitaries and scholars, including Australian Ambassador Alison Burrows, Hun Sen asked why his former ally no longer wanted to be friends.
“I just wonder…why, my friend, did you criticise me last year as reported in the newspapers?” he asked to Evans’ obvious discomfort, before complaining about the international community’s reluctance to explicitly refer to preventing the return of the Khmer Rouge in the Paris Peace Agreements.
“I remember the memories of working together,” Hun Sen continued, recalling driving around with Evans in Sydney and late night negotiations in Jakarta in the lead-up to the 1991 accords.
“We have been friendly together. But [now] you don’t want to be friends anymore?” he asked.
“I don’t deserve Gareth Evans’ criticism because I’m thinking about the memories of working together for so long.”
The premier then tried to lighten the mood by adding he was “just joking” but curtly added that “for some of it…I’m not joking, it’s real.”
The pair exchanged a handshake and a few words at the conclusion of Hun Sen’s speech.
In an op-ed last February published in the Post, Evans said that Cambodia’s political leaders should be “named, shamed, investigated and sanctioned” by the international community.
“For far too long, Hun Sen and his colleagues have been getting away with violence, human-rights abuses, corruption, and media and electoral manipulation without serious internal or external challenge,” he wrote.
Evans said that while he had previously resisted making "strong public criticism” in the hope that the situation could change, the CPP’s behaviour had “moved beyond the civilised pale” following the 2013 national election.
Evans declined to comment in detail on Thursday.
“I’m just glad to know the Prime Minister read my article,” he said.