While the outbreak of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has caused troubles for many world leaders, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has used the epidemic as a political gambit to bolster his domestic and international image.
Domestically speaking, Hun Sen has played a high-stakes game by downplaying fear of the coronavirus to make the case to Cambodians that there is in an experienced sheriff in town and they have nothing to worry about with him at the helm. Unlike Vietnam, Singapore, and scores of other countries who have banned flights to and from China, Hun Sen has refused to do so, citing that the Kingdom of Cambodia stands in solidarity with China in desperate times. He also refused to evacuate 23 Cambodian students trapped in China’s Wuhan city, the epicenter of COVID-19, despite some criticisms.
After it was confirmed in late January that a 60-year-old Chinese man who flew in from Wuhan and landed in Sihanoukville province had contracted the virus, the premier strongly appealed to the Cambodian public for calm. Hun Sen promised that his government would invest in whatever resources it takes to ensure proper quarantine and successful treatment of that patient. He has repeatedly argued that people should be more scared of false reports about the virus than the virus itself.
To push his case further, Hun Sen spoke to journalists in a televised-speech-turned-press-conference on January 29, in which he blasted local reporters for blowing the outbreak out of proportion with their coverage. He went so far as to threaten to expel those wearing masks from venue, scolding that “the prime minister doesn’t wear a mask, so why do you?” When asked for a response to a testy question positing that some have no confidence in Cambodia’s healthcare system, Hun Sen immediately became irritated and pushed back, asking, “Have any of those skeptics contracted the virus yet? If not, how do they know that our government is incapable?” So far, Hun Sen’s domestic handling of COVID-19 has proven its point because no Cambodian national has been infected with the virus yet, though some say there may be more cases than the government is willing to admit. Moreover, the single Chinese patient was recently discharged from Sihanoukville Referral Hospital in healthy condition.
Hun Sen has also used the outbreak to score diplomatic points. Cambodia has become a close political ally of China in recent decades. Since 1997, party-to-party and government-to-government relations have strengthened significantly, while Phnom Penh’s ties with Washington and other Western powers have gone through a tumultuous phase since at least 2017.
The decision to continue flights from China and to not evacuate the 23 Cambodian students trapped in Wuhan is something straight out of Hun Sen’s “How to Win Chinese Friends and Influence People” playbook. Aside from the fact that overreaction to the epidemic might cause diplomatic friction with China, which is arguably his most vital political ally, the outbreak gives the prime minister an opportunity to prove to the Chinese leadership that he is with them in sickness and in health.
To drive his point home, on February 4 Hun Sen announced that he would visit Khmer students in Wuhan after joining a summit in South Korea, although the plan was rejected by Chinese authorities due to safety concerns. To make up for that, he redirected his route to Beijing, where he was greeted on the tarmac by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, a sign that his solidarity was well received by the Chinese government. During that “special” visit, Hun Sen met with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Xi boasted about the “true” and “all-weather” friendship between the two countries and thanked Cambodia for standing together with China during this “special moment.” Hun Sen’s visit, however, invited criticisms back home that he is subservient to Beijing.
What appeared to be another week of normalcy dramatically turned into an opportunity for Hun Sen to double down on his global public relations campaign. On February 12, the Holland America Line (HAL) cruise ship, MS Westerdam, requested emergency docking in Sihanoukville port after it was shunned by Guam, Taiwan, Thailand, Japan, and the Philippines due to fear that passengers onboard may be infected with COVID-19, although HAL claimed otherwise. The ship reportedly had 802 crew members and 1,455 passengers onboard, 651 of whom are U.S. citizens. The cruise-goers would be transferred on charter flights to Phnom Penh before heading to their respective countries.
After the ship docked on February 13, Hun Sen did not let the PR chance slip away from him. He flew to Sihanoukville the next morning to personally meet with stranded passengers, who were greeted with roses, handshakes, photo ops, and krama. His greenlight for the ship received wide and positive coverage in local and international outlets. For a country whose appearances in the global press are constantly dominated by headlines about human rights violations and authoritarianism, this was a “play big, win big” situation for Hun Sen. Praises were pouring in from the director-general of the World Health Organization, the European Union, and even U.S. President Donald Trump, who tweeted a rare “thank you” message.
Hun Sen’s risky gamble with the Westerdam should be viewed not only as an attempt to raise Cambodia’s international profile (and his own) but also in respect to the Kingdom’s diplomatic ties with the United States. Cambodia and the U.S. are celebrating the 70th anniversary of their diplomatic relations this year. After bilateral ties went into a downward spiral from 2017 to 2019, Hun Sen appears willing to mend relations with Washington since the arrival of new U.S. Ambassador W. Patrick Murphy last year. Since there were 651 U.S. citizens on Westerdam, Hun Sen’s humanitarian gesture would certainly not go unnoticed by Washington. Furthermore, the docking challenges those who previously criticized his recent trip to China, because it indicates that Cambodia also considers the United States and other Western nations, whose citizens made up the majority of people trapped on the ship, as friends.
Another big win for Hun Sen is that the COVID-19 outbreak and the Westerdam incident have momentarily diverted attention away from the European Union’s latest decision to partially withdraw Cambodia’s preferential access to its consumer market, which will affect one-fifth or $1.08 billion of the Kingdom’s annual exports. It has also distracted the public from the ongoing trial of Kem Sokha, leader of the Supreme Court-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party, whose lawyers reportedly walked out of the closed hearing due to his presence being barred by the court.
That being said, there are already signs that Hun Sen’s gambling may backfire. As Westerdam’s passengers were still on their flights home from Cambodia, Malaysia confirmed that an 83-year-old American women who flew in from Phnom Penh had tested positive for COVID-19 twice. This announcement directly contradicts previous statements by the Cambodian Ministry of Health that everyone aboard the ship was medically healthy. This will be a setback for Hun Sen’s precipitous PR campaign, but it will not alter the fact that he came to the Westerdam’s rescue when nobody else did. He deserves credit for that gesture.
Since the outbreak began, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has turned the epidemic into a high-stakes political game, in which he has bet big. His consistent downplaying of fears about the virus, his decision to continue flights from China, his unexpected meeting with Xi Jinping, and his shrewd decision to accept the Westerdam’s docking amid fear and criticisms from the Cambodian public appear to fit well in a loose thread of calculative moves. Hun Sen ultimately aims to win the hearts and minds of the domestic and global audience and to distract attention away from the EU’s EBA decision and Kem Sokha’s trial.
Sopagna Heng is a political analyst based in Southeast Asia.