Prime Minister Hun Sen (L) gestures before delivering his speech at the National Assembly yesterday in Phnom Penh. Minister of Interior Sar Keng (2nd R) and Deputy Prime Minister Sok An (R) were also in attendance. Photograph: Pha Lina/Phnom Penh Post
Sometimes austere, other times ebullient, Prime Minister Hun Sen spent his rare, more than five-hour speech to parliament yesterday outlining a border demarcation plan with Vietnam and taunting the opposition before refusing to answer anything other than written questions.
Peppered with vitriolic outbursts at his critics, the premier’s speech to 103 lawmakers at the National Assembly focused on a plan for Cambodia and Vietnam to compensate one another with unoccupied land for villages it had been agreed fell in the opposing country’s territory.
“The choice is that we must keep the same situation according to the occupation [of areas] of people,” he said.
Land for exchange in Kampot, Kampong Cham and Takeo provinces had already been agreed upon by the two countries, while negotiations to do the same in Prey Veng and Svay Rieng provinces were under way, Hun Sen told the parliament.
Cambodians have been occupying 2,160.6 hectares of territory belonging to their eastern neighbour while Vietnamese are living on 916.7 hectares of land in the Kingdom, he added, stressing that exchanges would be equal, hectare for hectare.
The process of demarcation, the premier said, followed that which was laid down by King Father and former president Norodom Sihanouk, relying on maps devised by the French colonial administrations of Cochinchina (southern Vietnam) and Cambodia.
“I would like to say that with both land border and maritime border, we followed the map which Samdech Norodom Sihanouk deposited at the United Nations [in 1964],” he said.
“Your insults of Hun Sen are equal to insults of Sihanouk, because Hun Sen follows Sihanouk for all.”
National Assembly President Heng Samrin enacted his constitutional right to quash any debate during the session, though the premier did answer four written questions sent to him by Sam Rainsy Party whip Son Chhay more than six weeks prior.
Heng Samrin’s decision infuriated Son Chhay, who said Cambodia was undoubtedly alone amongst democracies around the world in having a parliament that was never allowed to debate anything.
“They don’t allow us to speak, they don’t allow us to ask questions, for five hours just listening to his threats – we’re really pissed off,” he said, adding that it was the first time in almost 20 years that Hun Sen had even answered a written question in parliament.
“If you don’t have any questions, you don’t call it question time, you call it propaganda time.”
The government, he said, was constantly violating Article 96 of the constitution by not responding to questions within a week or simply not answering at all, which had happened with 70 per cent of the letters he had sent.
Political analyst Lao Mong Hay said he felt the solution the government had presented to resolve the long-running process of demarcating the border with Vietnam was fair but also expressed disappointment about the premier’s conduct in parliament.
“We heard one side of the story, so we should be able to hear the other side as well,” he said.
In response to the written questions, Hun Sen clarified Cambodia’s position on once-disputed Phu Quoc Island, which is currently part of Vietnam but known by Cambodians as Koh Tral Phu Quoc, as well as two villages in Kampong Cham province.
The premier said Sihanouk had told former Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Van Dong that Cambodia no longer demanded Koh Trol back in 1999, relinquishing the Kingdom’s right to the island.
Sihanouk’s personal adviser and secretary, Prince Thomico Sisowath, refused to comment on any discussion the king father might have had with Pham Van Dong in 1999 but said the map the king father had taken to the UN made no such concession.
“The map which the King took to deposit at the UN claimed that Koh Trol is in Khmer land. Cambodia denied that France took Koh Trol to give to Cochinchina,” he said. In June, senior minister in charge of the Cambodian Border Affairs Committee, Va Kimhong, said the government would have to cede two villages to Vietnam to keep Thlok Trach and Anlung Chrey villages in Kampong Cham province’s Ponhea Krek district.
But Hun Sen yesterday simply confirmed that part of Heng Samrin’s village was in Vietnamese territory and that the National Assembly president had been lobbying hard for it to remain in Cambodia, without explaining whether or not it would.
The Vietnamese Embassy in Phnom Penh did not reply to enquiries from the Post.
Not for the first time, Hun Sen accused Son Chhay of political skulduggery, rehashing his old claim that the lawmaker, whom he belittling referred to as his “younger brother”, had acted as “his little spy” in 1997 in exchange for US$10,000.
The premier took the allegation further yesterday, claiming 20 pages of documents and a CD recording proved Son Chhay had tipped him off about a plan to overthrow him in 1997.
“During that time, you reported [to me] about the military situation that was organised by [then-Funcinpec military commander] Nhek Bunchhay, Khan Saveoun and Ho Sok. It was a good report that made me have enough time to prevent the situation in advance,” he said.
Hun Sen, then second co-prime minister next to Funcinpec’s Prince Norodom Ranariddh, became Cambodia’s unopposed leader shortly after, following bloody factional fighting that the premier has repeatedly argued was not a coup d’etat.
Son Chhay said it was sad that the prime minister of Cambodia behaved in such a dishonest, undignified way in a speech broadcast across the country.
“This is a dirty game, this is a cheap thing, that this man has been using. So they play this game,” Chhay said, rejecting all Hun Sen’s accusations as complete rubbish.
Son Chhay has previously conceded that he did indeed accept US$10,000 from Hun Sen, but only when he returned to Cambodia in 1997, money he believed parliamentarians that had stayed had also be given.
Not taking the money, Son Chhay told the Post in December 2006, could have been seen as a “negative reaction” to a goodwill gesture from the premier and jeopardised his negotiations with Hun Sen to secure the return of other politicians who had fled.