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Cambodia's Unique Indifference To The Coronavirus

 


 

 

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Cambodia's authoritarian leader Hun Sen is not
panicking about the possibility of the deadly coronavirus killing
anyone in his Southeast Asian nation.

And he's not evacuating Cambodians trapped in China where more than
1,000 people have perished from the disease.

Instead, Prime Minister Hun Sen told Cambodians to stay and experience
Wuhan's dystopian lockdown.

He also allowed more than 2,000 people, including about 600 Americans,
to dock in Cambodia's port after their Westerdam cruise ship was
turned away by five countries amid fears that it might carry a
coronavirus victim.

On February 16, an 83-year-old American passenger from the Westerdam
reportedly tested positive for the coronavirus when she arrived in
neighboring Malaysia.

Hun Sen earlier said everyone else in Cambodia should strip off their
medical face mask and refuse to wear it.

"The prime minister doesn’t wear a mask, so why do you?” he angrily
railed at reporters during a recent news conference in the capital
Phnom Penh.

Asked about evacuating 23 reportedly healthy Cambodian students stuck
in Wuhan, he replied, “We are keeping them there to share [China's]
happiness and pain, and to help them solve this situation.

"Evacuating them would probably bring an end to opportunities for
Cambodians to study there. China would stop offering scholarships.”

Hun Sen also rejected demands to ban flights from China, which
reportedly flew at least 3,000 Chinese direct from Wuhan to Cambodia
this year.

"There is no need to stop flights from China, because doing so would
kill our economy and destroy ties with China," he said.

China is Cambodia's closest ally and biggest foreign investor.

Hun Sen's approach to the coronavirus problem displayed "important
support for China," said Beijing-controlled Xinhua News.

Cambodian critics however pelted Hun Sen with outrage, mockery, and
allegations of selling out to China's cash flow.

Hun Sen pointed to official reports of only one infected 60-year-old
Chinese man from Wuhan who was living in Sihanoukville where Chinese
investors control about 90% of the hotels, factories, apartments,
restaurants, massage parlors and 80 casinos.

The Sihanoukville Special Economic Zone is a China-Cambodia tax-free
economic area linked to China's international Belt and Road
Initiative.

The stricken patient, Jia Jianhau, recovered and was released from
quarantine on February 10, the Health Ministry said.

Hun Sen has spent years crushing independent media in Cambodia, and
much of the country is rural and impoverished, so the number of
unreported cases may be higher.

“Is there any Cambodian or foreigner in Cambodia who has died of the
disease?” he asked.

“The real disease happening in Cambodia right now is the disease of
fear. It is not the coronavirus that occurs in China’s Wuhan city.”

His stance was cheered by China's President Xi Jinping who welcomed
Hun Sen to Beijing's Great Hall of the People on February 5.

Hun Sen told Mr. Xi that he traveled to China " to showcase Cambodia’s
support to China in fighting the outbreak of the epidemic" and visit
Cambodian students quarantined in Wuhan along with the city's other
residents.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, China blocked Hun Sen's request.

"We fully understand that Prime Minister Hun Sen cares deeply for the
Cambodian students in China," China's Foreign Ministry spokesperson
Hua Chunying said.

"Considering the fact that Wuhan is doing all it can to fight the
outbreak, and given the tight schedule, a visit to Wuhan at this
moment cannot be properly arranged. China attaches great importance to
the health and security of Cambodian students in China. We will do our
best to care for them as our own, and make sure they have all they
need during their study in China."

Hun Sen was blinded in one eye when he was a mid-level Khmer Rouge
commander of the Eastern Zone during the guerrilla war that enabled
Pol Pot to rule Cambodia from 1975 to 1979 and slaughter one million
Cambodians by execution, torture, starvation, and other deliberate
policies.

In 1977, Hun Sen defected to Vietnam. He returned to Phnom Penh atop a
Vietnamese invasion in 1978 which toppled Pol Pot and led to Hanoi's
10-year occupation of Cambodia.

Vietnam helped install Hun Sen as Cambodia's foreign minister. He
became prime minister in 1985.

Today, the tough-talking, combat-hardened leader is loathe to display
fear of a microscopic virus.

"We have already tasted countless wars and tragedies they had made for
us, but we are not dead," Hun Sen said on February 11.

He was responding to a trade dispute with the European Union, but it
indicated his fearlessness or bravado.

Hun Sen also wants to play nice with Beijing to secure Chinese investments.

China's infrastructure upgrade for Cambodia includes funding seven
hydropower dams to supply half of Cambodia’s electricity.

Chinese laid more than 1,800 miles of roads and bridges during the
past two decades.

More than 250,000 Chinese citizens live in Cambodia, comprising about
60 percent of all foreign residents in a country with a population of
about 17 million people, according to Cambodia's Interior Ministry.

"We only have to cooperate with the Chinese embassy in Cambodia and
treat Chinese investors, Chinese special economic zones, Chinese
citizens, Chinese tourists who are working in or visiting Cambodia
well," Hun Sen said during a January 30 news conference.

A flood of unregulated Chinese cash into Cambodia however is blamed
for fueling corruption, crime, the exploitation of workers, a
manipulation of the country's politics, inflation, ecological
degradation and a lopsided dependence on Beijing, critics say.

***

Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist from San Francisco,
California, reporting news from Asia since 1978 and winner of Columbia
University's Foreign Correspondent's Award. He co-authored three
non-fiction books about Thailand, including "'Hello My Big Big Honey!'
Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews," "60
Stories of Royal Lineage," and "Chronicle of Thailand: Headline News
Since 1946." Mr. Ehrlich also contributed to the chapter "Ceremonies
and Regalia" in a book published in English and Thai titled, "King
Bhumibol Adulyadej, A Life's Work: Thailand's Monarchy in
Perspective." Mr. Ehrlich's newest book, "Sheila Carfenders, Doctor
Mask & President Akimbo" portrays a 22-year-old American female mental
patient who is abducted to Asia by her abusive San Francisco
psychiatrist.

His online sites are:

https://asia-correspondent.tumblr.com

https://flickr.com/photos/animists/albums

https://www.amazon.com/Hello-Big-Honey-Revealing-Interviews/dp/1717006418

https://www.amazon.com/Sheila-Carfenders-Doctor-President-Akimbo/dp/1973789353/

https://www.facebook.com/SheilaCarfenders

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