Buffeted by international criticism over his stance on the South China Sea dispute, Prime Minister Hun Sen this week found support for his position on the home front, albeit from a source analysts were quick to question.
One hundred and forty-seven NGOs, associations and unions lent their support to Prime Minister Hun Sen on Monday, issuing a letter explicitly backing a widely reported decision to eschew a collective ASEAN statement on the South China Sea.
The letter is signed by representatives of four groups – the National Union Alliance Chamber of Cambodia (NACC), National Educators Association for Development (NEAD), Social Counseling Agency for Cambodia (SCAC), and Cambodia Federation for Human Rights and Development (CFHRAD) – which represent a broad collection of pro-government organisations.
“We all support the clear position taken by the government of Cambodia to not issue any statement supporting the arbitral tribunal’s decision related the dispute in the South China Sea,” the statement reads, in referencing a decision from the Hague due next week that will rule on waters contested by China and the Philippines in the sea.
Hun Sen has publicly slammed the process, saying he will not respect any ruling from the court as it is party to “political collusion” against China, Cambodia’s longtime benefactor.
“We request all relevant stakeholders to refrain as much as possible and for the parties to give the chance to negotiate with each other based on the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the [SCS],” the letter continues.
Both SCAC director Ung Molyvann and CFHRAD president Thao Veasna declined to comment when contacted by the Post, while NACC president Som Aun could not be reached.
NEAD treasurer Siv Samoeun, however, said the group feared becoming “an enemy” of the countries involved and that they collectively “stand for Cambodia’s neutrality”.
But Yong Phanny, head of the Democratic Independent Solidarity Union Federation, one of the 17 bodies under the NACC umbrella, yesterday said he had not even been informed the federation was releasing the statement and that the decision must have come from the top.
“In principal, we are a member, so we must support the NACC’s decision,” he said, while admitting that his garment worker union had no real stake in the dispute. “We are a group that supports the policy of the government, so whatever the government says, we must support it.”
The letter also offered words of praise for two speeches made by Hun Sen on June 20 and June 28, in which he lashed out at suggestions that Cambodia was to blame for the withdrawal of the June ASEAN statement, and accused unnamed countries of being “haughty and insulting” and trying to use the Kingdom to “counter China”.
Asked about the letter of support, Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan yesterday said the government had not prompted or nudged the groups to release the statement, saying it was simply a case of people spontaneously expressing themselves.
“They have a right to expression,” he said. “And they are concerned about the [SCS] policy and they don’t want Cambodia to be used [in this dispute].”
He reiterated that Cambodia’s position was independent of any influence from outside forces, particularly China.
But Sebastian Strangio, author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia, yesterday said the statement had all the earmarks of having been orchestrated by the government.
“This statement has clearly been coordinated by Prime Minister Hun Sen and his government to assure China (another country where the tradition of coordinated statements by bogus NGOs and ‘trade unions’ has a long history) of Cambodia’s continued support on the issue of dispute resolution in the South China Sea,” he said in an email.
“None of these organisations are known, let alone credible, to an international audience. This is Hun Sen’s way of letting the leaders in Beijing know that he has their back.”
He added that Cambodia had long-ago adopted Beijing’s position on the SCS dispute by insisting disputes be settled on a bilateral basis, thereby cutting ASEAN out of the equation.
Billy Chia-Lung Tai, a human rights and legal consultant, said the government was cobbling together domestic support to lend legitimacy to its stance when justifying its actions on the ASEAN stage. “[But] I don’t think most Cambodians here even care about what is happening in the South China Sea,” he said.
He added that pro-government groups were known to get their marching orders from certain quarters of the government, and such groups were expected to prove their loyalty from time to time.