Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, his wife and at least 18 bodyguards are in quarantine after meeting with the Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó, who tested positive for the COVID-19 virus shortly after leaving the country.
A health ministry official said 628 people were confirmed as negative following tests in response to his visit, but Hun Sen said he and others would enter quarantine as a precautionary measure.
Szijjártó’s visit had been hailed as a success after he told Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn that the Hungarian government was ready to serve as the bridge in cooperation between the European Union and Cambodia.
That bridge is much needed, given the EU’s recent decision to withdraw some trade perks in response to this country’s human rights record. The European bloc has also designated Cambodia a “high risk” nation for money laundering, which could result in the imposition of sanctions.
Those trade preferences were removed under the EU’s Everything But Arms (EBA) policy, which grants trade concessions to developing countries in return for governments meeting international standards on human rights.
Loss of trade perks combined with the pandemic has punished the Cambodian economy amid a collapse of the once lucrative tourism industry.
The garment and textiles industry, which employs about 700,000 people, has also suffered a dramatic collapse of orders, resulting in 83 factory closures, 150,000 layoffs and fewer working hours for those who still have a job.
“Hungary’s position on the removal of the EBA is another example of a friend who understands the situation in Cambodia and is brave enough to support Cambodia for justice towards a democratic democracy,” Prak Sokhonn said.
During the meeting, Szijjártó and Sokhonn signed MoUs on civil aviation, water management and meteorology, tourism and agriculture.
“Hungary is ready to serve as the bridge of the European Union-Cambodia cooperation where we do believe that political perceptions should not be confused with economic and trade realities,” Szijjártó said.
Hungary and Cambodia had a like-minded relationship during the last decade of the Cold War when, under the influence of the Soviet Union, Hungary was one of the first countries to recognize the new government formed after the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979.
Sokhonn said Hungary had provided assistance and support when Cambodia was recovering from the genocidal regime led by Pol Pot, noting that Hungarian Blue Hat troops had served under the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia, which oversaw elections in 1993.
Cambodia has merged relatively unscathed from the pandemic. To date, just 292 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed with 286 recoveries and no deaths.
Nearly all cases were attributed to people arriving from outside of the country by flight or ship arrivals in the southern port of Sihanoukville. Szijjártó tested positive after arriving in Bangkok from Phnom Penh.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said government officials of all levels who had met with Hungarian delegates must undergo an enforced quarantine.
They included Mao Havannal, the head of the State Secretariat of Civil Aviation and Minister of Water Resources and Meteorology Lim Kean Hor.
Hun Sen has earned widespread praise for his handling of the pandemic and an early closure of borders. But he has also been accused of using the pandemic as an excuse to introduce a new law that empowers him to restrict civil and political rights.
“We rushed to get the tests. As a result, none of us have COVID-19,” Hun Sen said. “Even [though I] tested negative, I will put myself in 14-day quarantine for everyone’s safety.”
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt