Prime Minister Hun Sen broke his avowed silence on Myanmar’s “Rohingya issue” to make a political point – and fresh election promises – at a university graduation ceremony yesterday.
The premier in February made assurances that “Cambodia disagrees with the attempt to internationalise the Rohingya issue, considering it as an internal issue of Myanmar”, citing Asean’s principle of “non-interference”. Yesterday, however, he appeared to change his tune speaking to graduating students at the Cambodian University for Specialties.
“In Myanmar there is a problem known as ‘Rohingya’,” he said, adding Myanmar wouldn’t allow the use of the word “Rohingya” and insisted on “Bengali”.
He described the current situation as a “humanitarian crisis of refugees”.
More than half a million Rohingya Muslims have fled Myanmar since August 25, after Rohingya militants attacked security posts in Rakhine state, igniting a vicious response from the military. Villages have been razed, people have been raped and shot, and the UN’s top rights official has described Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.
Myanmar’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, spent 15 years under house arrest and was long idolised as an incarnation of liberal democracy and human rights, but has recently fallen out of favour and been stripped of international accolades due to her response – or lack thereof – to the violence perpetrated against the Rohingya.
Although he did not name her, Hun Sen yesterday appeared to criticise Suu Kyi’s leadership.
“The politicians in some countries ... make extreme promises and finally, now when they hold the power, they cannot [fulfil them],” he said. “Some countries promise to end the discrimination towards the ethnic minority, but now that country is suffering with ethnic problems and the previous ceasefire also failed, so the fighting just began again.”
The criticisms come just days after Hun Sen met State Counsellor Suu Kyi in Brunei, with pictures of the pair posted to the premier’s Facebook page on Saturday.
Representatives at the Myanmar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and its embassy in Phnom Penh could not be reached. Cambodian Foreign Ministry spokesman Chum Sounry declined to comment as he was unaware of the meeting or the premier’s remarks.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan was also reluctant to comment in detail as he had not heard Hun Sen’s speech, adding that the matter was “very sensitive”.
“It used to be that we, according to Asean principles, we did not allow ourselves to interfere with internal affairs” of fellow member states, he said, although he noted that the government was aware of “the UN asking Myanmar to do something [about the issue]”.
Human Rights Watch’s Phil Robertson said that “Myanmar deserves heavy criticism for horrible abuses against the Rohingya”, and would have been better equipped had it allowed the UN to set up a rights office there. He added that Hun Sen was actually said to have advised then-junta leader Thein Sein against allowing such an office, noting that if he had, the UN would now be able to investigate where Suu Kyi has no control over the military.
“I wouldn’t place too much emphasis on the fact that he mentioned the Rohingya because when a leader is prone to rambling speeches like [Prime Minister] Hun Sen, every topic gets covered eventually,” he wrote.
“The old adage about rocks and denizens of glass houses is so very applicable here. But in Hun Sen’s case, it’s the ethnic Vietnamese who are stateless and systematically discriminated against, with the Ministry of Interior now talking about stripping up to 70,000 Vietnamese of allegedly fraudulent citizenship documents.”
Hun Sen yesterday noted such crises happen in other countries too but did not acknowledge his own government’s pending deportation of Montagnard asylum seekers, or the Ministry of Interior plan to strip allegednon-Cambodians of their citizenship.
“If he really wants to be different from Suu Kyi, why not recognise people who have lived in Cambodia for generations as full and equal citizens?” Robertson asked
Hun Sen also took aim at Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras yesterday, accusing him of failing to resolve tax and debt issues as promised. He went on to say that state leaders are “required to have a long-term vision and do it right, not just a sudden [promise] based on the stage of election campaigns”.
“State management is not just propaganda to get ballots, but it requires a thorough consideration ranging from the budget and whether it can be sustained or not.”
The premier then went on to roll out his latest election promise – a $200 baby bonus for civil servants, police and members of the army, with $400 for twins and $600 for triplets.
The new bonuses, due to start in January 2018, are double what Hun Sen promised to garment workers last month, and are the latest populist perks to be doled out ahead of next year’s crucial national election.
Of the more than 92,000 women in the civil service, army and police, he anticipated 10,844 of them would give birth in 2018, and estimated the bonuses would cost the government around $2.1 million per year. He expected the garment worker pledge to cost $10 million, which would cover 100,000 births each year among the industry’s 700,000-strong, mostly female workforce.
The total sum of $12.1 million is almost equal to the entire 2017 budget for the Ministry of Women’s Affairs.
Government spokesman Siphan stressed the pledge represented the government’s “obligation” to help people, and was “not propaganda for voting”.
“We do [this] every year, every month. It doesn’t matter that the government sees the election coming … It’s routine,” he said.
San Chey, head of the NGO Affiliated Network for Social Accountability, welcomed the premier’s promise, but urged it to be extended to women working in entertainment, who were often discriminated against during pregnancy. He also said the move was a clear attempt to win over voters.
“For the politician, they see the political interests and the 2018 national election is approaching,” he said.
Cambodia National Rescue Party spokesman Son Chhay said there were a number of Hun Sen’s own promises left unfulfilled.
“Based on our observation, some tasks, he can achieve them, but some he cannot, such as forestry crime – he said that if he could not stop the forestry crime, he would behead himself,” Chhay said.
Additional reporting by Niem Chheng