Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday took umbrage with an article published by the Southeast Asia Globe in which three foreign observers commented on his health, challenging the trio to a golf or chess match to prove his vitality.
Speculation surrounding the premier’s health has been a touchy subject for him, fuelled by his regular visits to Singapore for health checkups.
During one such visit last year, Hun Sen lashed out at opposition activists for allegedly spreading rumours about his death and ill health after pictures were released online in which he appeared fatigued.
His sensitivity on such issues has also been fanned by the circulation of digitally altered pictures on Facebook purporting to show, among other things, the premier in a funeral setting.
Speaking at a medical centre inauguration yesterday, Hun Sen called the three international observers “stupid” and “ridiculous” for commenting on his health, and took issue with the article’s characterisation of him as appearing “frail” at a prayer ceremony held at Angkor Wat last month.
The January 1 article – titled Why the West was doomed to fail in Cambodia – posits that Cambodia’s strong pivot towards China, whose support has bolstered Hun Sen’s crackdown on dissent in the Kingdom, had potentially set “the stage for his succession”.
Though the premier only named two of the three commentators – prominent historian David Chandler and Sebastian Strangio, author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia – his remarks appeared to be referring to comments by Thailand-based academic Paul Chambers, also quoted in the article.
“I think it is purely stupid that they will even look at that day I went to pray at Angkor Wat and say Hun Sen stood up and did not walk normally,” he said.
In his comments, Chambers speaks about rumours surrounding the premier’s health, suggesting that it would have caught the attention of chief patron China as well, raising concerns over the stability of Chinese investments in the Kingdom in the event of the prime minister’s absence.
In an email yesterday, Chambers did not address the premier’s challenge, only wishing him well – albeit with a dash of sarcasm.
“I certainly wish the Prime Minister the best of health so that he can transform Cambodia from its current status as a personalist, single-party dominated pseudo-democracy to a healthy, consolidated democracy that all Cambodians deserve,” said Chambers, who is a lecturer at Naresuan University in Thailand.
Meanwhile, David Chandler, who authored The Tragedy of Cambodian History, said he did not want to comment on Hun Sen’s challenge beyond noting that he was 20 years Hun Sen’s senior, making comparisons of their vitality moot.
Strangio did not immediately return requests for comment yesterday.
Political observer Lao Mong Hay said that while the premier’s health was a matter of public interest, his touchiness on the issue ensured there would be little clarity surrounding his wellbeing.
“If the leader says no, then there is no truth,” he said, referring to Hun Sen’s reluctance to address the topic in detail.
“If they tell a lie for a long time, the truth will [eventually] appear.”