Cambodia's Unique Indifference To The Coronavirus
Thailand -- Cambodia's authoritarian leader Hun Sen is
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
On February 16, an 83-year-old American
passenger from the Westerdam
reportedly tested positive for the coronavirus when she arrived in
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
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.
them would probably bring an end to opportunities
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
"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.
critics however pelted Hun Sen with outrage, mockery,
allegations of selling out to China's cash flow.
Hun Sen pointed to official reports of only one
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
economic area linked to China's international Belt and Road
stricken patient, Jia Jianhau, recovered and was released
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
support to China in fighting the outbreak of the epidemic" and visit
Cambodian students quarantined in Wuhan along with the city's other
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.
fact that Wuhan is doing all it can to fight
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
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
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.
helped install Hun Sen as Cambodia's foreign minister.
became prime minister in 1985.
tough-talking, combat-hardened leader is loathe to
fear of a microscopic virus.
already tasted countless wars and tragedies they had made
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.
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.
than 250,000 Chinese citizens live in Cambodia, comprising
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
His online sites are: