PRIME Minister Hun Sen on Monday said ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan’s decision to express concern about highly publicised military exercises held in Kampong Chhnang province last week indicated he was “not suitable” for his position, and vowed to confront him if the statement was not retracted.
On Friday, Malaysia’s Bernama news agency said ASEAN “fears that Cambodia may send a wrong signal to the world” with the exercises, citing an interview with Surin, a former Thai foreign minister.
“We are very concerned with such development,” Surin was quoted as saying.
“I think Surin Pitsuwan is not suitable to be secretary general of ASEAN,” Hun Sen said during a speech before 300 disabled former soldiers in Kampot province. “The secretary general of ASEAN abused the role by interfering in internal affairs.”
Hun Sen threatened to raise the issue at ASEAN meetings scheduled for next month in Vietnam.
“As the head of a country and member of ASEAN, I would like to send a message,” he said. “If you do not correct [your comments] at the ASEAN meeting I will excoriate you. I will raise this issue to criticise the secretary general of ASEAN.”
[SURIN] HAS TO BE EXTREMELY CAREFUL NOT TO BE SEEN AS TAKING SIDES.
The Bernama report noted that Surin had declined to elaborate on his concerns, saying: “I have no details. I have to look into the details first.”
However, the comment enraged Cambodian officials nevertheless. On Sunday, Foreign Affairs Minister Hor Namhong also criticised the ASEAN leader.
“I strongly believe that in your capacity as secretary general of ASEAN, you should not make any wrong statement which may bring about a bad image to an ASEAN member country,” Hor Namhong wrote in a letter to Surin.
The government has maintained that the military exercise was not intended as a show of force related to border tensions with Thailand. Thai officials, including Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, have downplayed the issue in the Bangkok press, calling the exercises “normal”.
ASEAN officials could not be reached for comment on Monday.
A ‘sensitive issue’
Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, said Monday that he believed both Surin and Hun Sen had erred in their recent comments.
Though Surin is entitled in his role to comment on regional issues, as a former Thai foreign affairs minister, he should also have realised his comments would undergo great scrutiny in Cambodia, he said.
“It’s such a sensitive issue.... He has to be extremely careful not to be seen as taking sides,” Ou Virak said.
Surin also did not mention that Thai authorities have conducted multiple military exercises close to the border area, he said.
“He should have come out and spoken against Thailand’s testing as well, to be fair,” Ou Virak said.
At the same time, Hun Sen should have left the issue to his subordinates, he said.
“It would benefit Cambodia and the image of the Cambodian government if Hun Sen allowed other people to speak on his behalf and not always respond to every event or every opinion out there,” he said, adding that Hun Sen’s comments will only add to a regional perception that the Cambodian government and Hun Sen in particular don’t take well to criticism. “I don’t think it’s helpful to Cambodia,” he said.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY IRWIN LOY