Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday used a speaking slot at a children’s rights conference to once again castigate the United States, urging the UN to “increase its volume” in condemning the US for dropping bombs that maimed and killed children.
Speaking at the opening ceremony of the Asia-Pacific Regional Early Childhood Development conference in Siem Reap, the premier pontificated on the US invasions of Middle Eastern countries, saying those wars victimised children, who faced death, disability and orphanhood, something he then compared to the US’s 1970s bombing campaign in Cambodia.
“When the United States invaded Cambodia, how many children died, were injured, disabled and malnourished?” he said.
“I think UNICEF should [turn the] volume up [on] your voice … I think UNICEF does not need to be afraid of the United States; if the United States stops donating to the UN, it is a matter of the United States, but the United States invaded other countries, so we have to dare to say the truth.”
The hostile tone was a marked departure from the comments Prime Minister Hun Sen made in a press release circulated by UNICEF prior to yesterday’s event, which reads: “Cambodia loves children and perceives them as future leaders and human capital.”
Asked about the prime minister’s advice for the group, UNICEF spokesman Iman Morooka did not directly engage with the speech, choosing instead to focus on the childhood development event.
“UNICEF continues to speak up for the rights of children affected by crises around the world,” she said in a statement, going on to congratulate the government of Cambodia for hosting the event and for recognising early development was crucial for the future of the country.
Later in his speech, the premier once again asked US President Donald Trump to relieve Cambodia’s 1970s war-era debt taken on the by the Lon Nol regime – which has swollen to almost $500 million – before then taking a swipe at America’s human rights trajectory.
“Let’s wait and see this year about the rate of free press in the United States … Everyone keep your eyes on this, be a watchdog on human rights in the United States,” he said.
“Saying this does not mean I am a provocative person, but the US likes to be provocative; it provoked war, killed, and now is demanding debt from me.
“I have not sent an official letter to Trump asking him to cancel the debt … They brought bombs and dropped them on Cambodia and [now] demand Cambodian people to pay.”
Last Wednesday, the prime minister had invoked the ’70s bombing campaign in lashing out at the US Embassy for expressing concern at the recent passage of amendments to the Law on Political Parties, which many fear will be used as a cudgel against the opposition.
In early February, he had the US in his crosshairs again, condemning their use of “not just cluster bombs but chemical bombs” at a temple inauguration.
The US Embassy declined to comment yesterday on the recent string of public rebukes.
Dr Paul Chambers, with the Institute of South East Asian Affairs, said “Hun Sen’s current increased anti-US rhetoric owes to two principal factors”.
“First, as election season approaches, he wants to publicly identify his party as nationalistic and willing to stand up to Washington,” he wrote in an email.
“Second, Hun Sen is showing (at least for now) that his regime is aligned with China (and thus willing to launch verbal barbs against the US), therefore showing his patrons in Beijing that their investment in propping up his regime as a Southeast Asian ally are worthy.”
However, he said, Hun Sen has dipped into similar rhetoric on previous occasions, so these latest comments should not be interpreted as a sudden policy shift.
Sophal Ear, associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles, said it was “unlikely” Cambodia would be relieved of its debt.
“This is just the same old wine in a new bottle, but Trump offers the added satisfaction of a victory lap.”
Speaking later in the day yesterday, at the closing ceremony for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ annual meeting, the premier turned his attention to Europe’s current influx of refugees, seemingly relishing the thought of a gradual withdrawal of freedoms that might accompany possible terrorist attacks.
He asked if Europe was “proud of the flow of refugees” that will “never end”, adding that “soon civilian rights will be withdrawn step by step”.
“Why? When a terrorist attack happens, and there will be a curfew … The curfew or prohibited places are the reduction of civilian’s rights. So, in the near future, they will not be able to advise us anymore,” he said.