When Cambodia’s bid for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council first got into full swing the authorities in Phnom Penh were boasting more than 100 countries had decided to throw their backing behind the tiny Southeast Asian nation.
There was an additional advantage. Cambodia’s unflinching support for China’s regional foreign policy meant Beijing’s support and that of its friends and allies was a given. Its main competition was Bhutan – enormously popular but a diplomatic minnow even when compared with the likes of Cambodia. A required two-thirds majority from the General Assembly seemed assured.
But it was not to be. Outside countries and civil society groups – incensed by Cambodia’s human rights record – objected. The entourage who accompanied the Secretary General Ban ki-Moon to Cambodia in 2010, when Prime Minister Hun Sen apparently made some stunning faux pars, was also determined.
The net result was South Korea made a late bid and won.
Of those most opposed to Cambodia’s bid, Baroness Glenys Kinnock – a member of British House of Lords and the Global Witness advisory board – was perhaps the most cutting. Writing in the New York Times, she said Cambodia alongside other “state-looting dictators” should not be running at all.
“Cambodia is in the grip of an unprecedented land-grabbing crisis as an increasingly confident and insatiable elite helps itself to pretty much any natural resource it wants, ignoring its own laws and bulldozing local communities and dissenters out of the way,” she said.
Kinnock reserved most of her criticism for Hun Sen, adding: “It is tempting to describe what is happening as a descent into chaos. It is not chaos: It’s the systematic capture of the state and its resources and the elimination of free speech by a profoundly corrupt regime, and it can be stopped.”
Such criticisms are becoming all too common. But more disturbing was the government’s response to Kinnock, which would have failed to pass muster even in an elementary primary school debate.
Kuoy Kong, spokesperson and Undersecretary of State in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was charged with writing back and included such pearls of wisdom as: "Do you really believe a nation could get out of poverty by selling weaving baskets to tourists?"
Kong continued: "You should know also that the billions of dollars of aid which came in Cambodia went the most part to feed the army of NGOs, including the one you are now sitting on the advisory board and enjoying its perks and writing this article on its behalf in your comfortable sofa in London, and drinking cappuccino, if not martini. And you are talking about poverty in Cambodia. Please.”
Throughout the response it becomes clear that Cambodia can do with a bit more help. Its criticisms of Kinnock – whose arguments were based on undisputed facts — were little more than childish tantrums.
Instead the authorities in Phnom Penh might be better off following the General Assembly’s lead and take a good hard look at themselves.
None of the three bidding countries gained the required 128 votes from the assembly for victory. South Korea secured 116 votes and Cambodia scored 62, well ahead of Bhutan which was dropped from the second round of voting.
South Korea then won easily with 149 votes leaving Cambodia to lick its wounds with just 43 votes, devastatingly short of the promises and expectations raised through Cambodia’s relations with China and other members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) who also promised votes.
As a measure of Chinese influence, and of what diplomats really think of Cambodia, this vote was telling.
Chinese influence is not what it claims to be but, more importantly, Cambodia was judged by the heavy-handed tactics too often deployed by the authorities to ensure the whims of the moneyed elites and the designs of big corporations are met while silencing dissent.
If Cambodia fails to deal coherently and meaningfully with this issue then it should expect to see its place on the international stage further marginalized and any future overtures for a non-permanent seat on the Security Council rebuffed in equal measure.