In November 2009, a contingent of senior Cambodian officials lined up at a military air base to greet deposed Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose small private jet was arriving in Phnom Penh amid a diplomatic storm.
Among them – the man who would escort Thaksin during his short but highly controversial visit – was Prak Sokhon, yesterday sworn in as the Kingdom’s Foreign Minister.
“It was a sign of great confidence,” said a political commentator, who wished to remain anonymous, in a recent interview.
“It’s not about foreign policy experience that he’s Foreign Minister, it is absolute trust.”
Sokhon, a former party spokesman and close advisor to Prime Minister Hun Sen, moves to the portfolio after more than two years as Minister of Posts and Telecommunications, where he oversaw the passage of the controversial law on telecommunications.
It’s not the 61-year-old’s first Foreign Ministry posting. Educated in Hungary and France, according to an online biography, Sokhon spent three years as an ambassador in Europe.
Speaking under condition of anonymity, a Phnom Penh-based diplomat described the new minister as having “good management skills and vision”, citing his work overseeing Cambodia’s peacekeeping missions abroad, which they called “one of the main successes of Cambodian diplomacy”.
Yesterday, at a swearing-in ceremony at the Foreign Ministry presided over by Hun Sen, Sokhon paid tribute to his octogenarian predecessor, Hor Namhong.
“This is a great honour to follow in Your Excellency’s footsteps because there is no Cambodian who has your knowledge and professionalism and who has taken a life journey like Your Excellency,” Sokhon said.
Sokhon went on to praise Namhong’s lifetime of diplomatic service, which began at Cambodia’s Paris embassy in the late 1960s, and discuss his own plans to strengthen diplomatic cooperation across the board.
For three decades, Namhong has been the “czar” of Cambodian foreign policy, Southeast Asia geopolitics expert Carl Thayer said yesterday.
Namhong, whose sons have also worked in the foreign service, served as an envoy to Cuba for the exiled Norodom Sihanouk regime, allied with the Khmer Rouge, in the early 1970s. Upon the Khmer Rouge’s victory in 1975, he returned to Phnom Penh and was imprisoned.
His role at the Boeung Trabek prison camp remains a subject of debate. Opposition leader Sam Rainsy has accused him of collaborating in Khmer Rouge executions there, prompting Namhong to file multiple suits, with Rainsy in November fleeing abroad to avoid a prison term related to the case.
As a senior foreign ministry official in the 1980s, Namhong was a principal negotiator for the Hun Sen government at the Paris peace talks. Between the 1991 UN intervention and 1993 elections he served as Foreign Minister.
After another stint in Paris as ambassador, Namhong returned in 1998, and has served as Foreign Minister since.
“For more than three decades, I have worked my best, physically and spiritually, to serve the nation and the party and fulfill the duty that Samdech has provided without causing harm to the country and party,” Namhong said yesterday.
“Sometimes I used bad words to Her and His Excellencies and ladies and gentlemen in the past, this was not my intention, I hope these can be considered as caused by work pressure.”
Namhong, who will remain a deputy prime minister, told the Post in 2009, then 74, he “wanted to go” but had been encouraged by Hun Sen and others to continue.
His retirement is part of a major cabinet reshuffle announced by the premier last month.
Despite previously suggesting he might step down, one source said Namhong dismissed rumours of his retirement in a conversation mere weeks before the reshuffle.
“He said he would resign in 2018 and then let the new generation come,” the source, with knowledge of the conversation, said.
Thayer, the academic, said the new minister should seize on the opportunity to improve relations with the ASEAN bloc and the US, to help move Cambodia away from the lingering memory of Namhong’s 2012 chairmanship of the ASEAN summit, when he blocked a joint communique referencing the South China Sea dispute.
The move was widely seen as Cambodia acting to benefit China, its biggest trading partner, over other ASEAN nations that claim sovereignty over the waters.
“[The foreign policy] is not going to deviate too much from the past, but he can be much more flexible in dealing with countries other than China,” Thayer said.
Cambodian Institute for Strategic Studies president Phoak Kung said trade deals such as the US-backed Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Chinese Lancang-Mekong Cooperation initiative should be high on Sokhon’s agenda.
“As a small country we can not be too choosy ... It’s about how much we can get out of each agreement,” Kung said.