Prime Minister Hun Sen on May 17 questioned whether a man who threw a shoe at him while he was in the US was exercising freedom of expression or if it was an act of hostility.

Hun Sen was referring to an incident last week when a Cambodian-American later identified as Ouk Touch threw a shoe at him while he was greeting a crowd of supporters and taking selfies with them during his visit for the ASEAN-US Special Summit in Washington, DC.

Touch’s shoe missed the premier but hit the phone of a supporter who was taking a picture. He was then chased off by those present before any police intervention could take place.

Speaking to the volunteer healthcare workers from the Samdech Techo Voluntary Youth Doctor Association (TYDA) on May 17, Hun Sen said he had told his supporters to remain tolerant because if he had not done so, they might have done something more drastic to Touch for his actions.

“Please don’t forget that it was the US who was responsible for my security there,” he said. “Does the US regard this as freedom of speech or an act of violence? That is my question for them. I am not preaching to them, but the US must clear this up for me. I hope that the US ambassador in Phnom Penh will send the entirety of my message to the US administration.”

During an interview with Radio Free Asia, Touch confessed that he had tried to accomplish the act several times previously but failed, including during the ASEAN- South Korea summit in Busan in October of last year.

Hun Sen said that if the US regards throwing shoes at him as freedom of expression, then the world would be left without any semblance of law and order.

He said this was not a small issue, suggesting that the US think carefully on the matter before replying. He stressed that he was not calling for the US government to take legal action against Touch, but simply to explain their views to him.

“We know the group in Phnom Penh who is backing [Touch] and they should be careful about who they throw shoes at. That’s not a threat. It’s just my own legal and political analysis,” he said, adding that those who support Touch seemed to regard his act as heroic.

He renewed his call for supporters to remain calm and exercise tolerance in the face of provocations, while adding that he hoped their anger was not so great that it could no longer be controlled and warning that civil society organisations should avoid willfully misinterpreting his comments on this issue.

He also instructed Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Prak Sokhonn and the Cambodian ambassador to the US not to file any formal diplomatic complaint with the US government over the incident.

Chad Roedemeier, spokesman for the US embassy in Phnom Penh, avoided addressing the issue directly when asked for a response to Hun Sen’s remarks.

“The US-ASEAN Special Summit commemorated 45 years of US-ASEAN relations and demonstrates the US’ enduring commitment to ASEAN centrality in delivering sustainable solutions to the region’s most pressing challenges.

“The United States and ASEAN have committed to establishing an ASEAN-US Comprehensive Strategic Partnership that is meaningful, substantive, and mutually beneficial at the 10th ASEAN-US Summit in November 2022,” he said.

Yong Pov, a professor of political science at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, said that throwing a shoe at the prime minister was “immature and immoral” and that Touch should know better given that he lives in a highly developed country and apparently comes from a Cambodian cultural background.

“He shows his bad intentions with his actions that really are an embarrassment to civilised people and an affront to traditional Cambodian culture,” he said.