The anticipation surrounding US President Barack Obama’s visit today – a historic first for a sitting holder of that country’s highest office – is palpable in the streets of Phnom Penh.
The buzz over Obama’s presence, however, has not totally overshadowed the absence of two other highly visible political leaders from this week’s Cambodia-chaired ASEAN summit: Russian President Vladimir Putin and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
Although Foreign Affairs Minister Hor Namhong explained away Putin and Ban’s last-minute no-shows as a scheduling conflict for world leaders who had “pressing matters to attend to”, analysts yesterday differed over the possible reasons behind their absences.
“It surprises me,” University of New South Wales Professor Carl Thayer said of Putin’s decision not to attend.
“He’s been pushing the re-engagement of Russia in the Asia-Pacific, and this just undercuts that. He’s missing an opportunity to hobnob with his peers.”
Cambodia still owes Russia hundreds of millions of dollars from Soviet-era loans, but Thayer pointed out that the country is also indebted to the US and that was not an obstacle to Obama’s visit.
The Russian government is reportedly sending foreign minister Sergey Lavrov instead.
Phone calls and emails to the Russian embassy in Phnom Penh were unanswered, and the spokesman for the Cambodian Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not immediately respond to questions yesterday.
Thayer pointed out that Ban could be preoccupied by the clashes between Israel and Palestinians in Gaza. “There’s nothing playing out here where the UN is crucial.”
The history between Ban and the Cambodian government, however, is not without its hiccups. In 2010, a sit-down between Prime Minister Hun Sen and Ban went awry when the premier reportedly informed Ban that cases 003 and 004 at the Khmer Rouge tribunal “would not be allowed”.
Emails to regional UN representatives in Southeast Asia weren’t immediately returned.
Cambodian political analyst Chea Vannath dismissed theories that Ban’s absence was connected to his 2010 diplomatic scrape with Hun Sen.
“Usually, when you’re in that position, you put aside your personal feelings,” she said.
Vannath similarly dismissed theories that Putin’s failure to appear was indicative of some larger problem.
“Putin needs to put the Russian interest before anything else,” she said. “Maybe he has other pressing things he has to do.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Joe Freeman at [email protected]