Prime Minister Hun Sen on Tuesday waded into a conflict between Russia and the West, warning of global “disorder” that could end up affecting Cambodia.
On March 4, British double agent Sergei Skripal was poisoned in Salisbury, England, with a nerve agent believed to be of Russian origin. Skripal and his daughter Yulia both remain under medical care, with doctors reportedly fearing the elder Skripal will never fully recover.
The United Kingdom has accused Russia of being behind the attack, and began expelling Russian diplomats from the country. The US and other European countries followed suit, with Russia then retaliating by expelling Western diplomats.
“Now, the diplomatic war became a hot topic,” Hun Sen told a group of graduates on Tuesday.
He counselled that Cambodia would do well to “observe” the situation. “The world is in disorder,” he said. “Please don’t forget that what happens in the world affects us too.”
The Russian and US embassies in Phnom Penh have also exchanged barbs over the scuffle, with an open letter from the Russians published in the Khmer Times on March 27 claiming that efforts to prove that it was linked to the poisoning have been “futile”, and calling on the world to “stop demonising Russia”.
In response, the US Embassy in Phnom Penh released a statement backing the UK’s stance, saying the attack was either “a deliberate action by the Russian government or else it was a result of Russia’s failure to declare and secure its stocks of this weapon”.
Astrid Noren-Nilsson, a political scientist who specialises in Cambodia, said Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn previously “singled out China and Russia as the countries with which Cambodia’s foreign policy future lies”.
Noren-Nilsson referred to Russia as Cambodia’s “moral patron”, and noted that it was significant that Hun Sen did not take sides in the current dispute. “Hun Sen’s reluctance to take clear sides on this incident so far does appear to signal . . . concern with this type of conflict given Cambodia’s Cold War-era sufferings,” she said.
Given his history, Hun Sen would indeed be sensitive to any potential return to Cold War politics.
As hostilities in Vietnam spilled across the border in the 1960s and ’70s, a bloodless coup in Cambodia gave rise to a pro-US republic, which was subsequently overthrown by the ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge, which oversaw the deaths of over a million Cambodians, and for which Hun Sen was a military commander. That regime was, in turn, overthrown by the Vietnamese, to whom the premier had defected, and who at the time were backed by Russia.
Cambodia, meanwhile, remained mired in civil war for decades, with Hun Sen at the helm of Vietnamese-installed government, until the Paris Peace Agreement, which was brokered with the involvement of both the Soviet Union and the West.