Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - End of an era as Sokhon steps up to Foreign Ministry

End of an era as Sokhon steps up to Foreign Ministry

Prak Sokhon, the former Posts and Telecommunications minister, attends a ceremony in Phnom Penh yesterday at which he was officially handed the reins of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Prak Sokhon, the former Posts and Telecommunications minister, attends a ceremony in Phnom Penh yesterday at which he was officially handed the reins of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Heng Chivoan

End of an era as Sokhon steps up to Foreign Ministry

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.

MOST VIEWED

  • Prince Norodom Ranariddh passes away at 77

    Prince Norodom Ranariddh, the second son of the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk and former First Prime Minister of Cambodia, has passed away in France at the age of 77. “Samdech Krom Preah Norodom Ranariddh has passed away this morning in France just after 9am Paris-time,”

  • Cambodia purchases 4 million Molnupiravir tablets

    Cambodia has arranged for the purchase of four million US-made Molnupiravir pills – enough to treat 100,000 Covid-19 patients – even though the current rate of daily infections in Cambodia remains low. The medicine will be distributed to state hospitals, pharmacies and private clinics, according to the Samdech

  • Rise in planned flights lifts travel hopes

    Six airlines have applied to resume flights in December, while two others have put in for additional flights and routes, according to State Secretariat of Civil Aviation (SSCA) head Mao Havannall on November 29. These account for 43 new weekly domestic and international flights in December, up 16

  • General’s gun smuggling ring busted

    The Military Police sent six military officers to court on November 22 to face prosecution for possession of 105 illegal rifles and arms smuggling, while investigators say they are still hunting down additional accomplices. Sao Sokha, deputy commander of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces and commander of

  • Is Cambodia’s travel sector in for another cheerless holiday season?

    The travel and tourism sector was heaving back to life as borders started to reopen, promising a festive vibe for the holidays and New Year. But Omicron and other Covid-related issues are threatening to close the year on a bleak note ‘Seems [like] Covid-19 won’

  • Cambodia, Thailand to discuss border reopening

    Cambodian authorities from provinces along the Cambodia-Thailand border will meet with Thai counterparts to discuss reopening border checkpoints to facilitate travel, transfer of products and cross-border trade between the two countries. Banteay Meanchey provincial deputy governor Ly Sary said on November 22 that the provincial administration