An expert's point of view on a current event.

Cambodia’s Leaders Line Up a Coronavirus Scapegoat

Hun Sen needs somebody to blame for the impending disaster.

A quarantine official checks the temperature of a Chinese medical expert in Cambodia
A quarantine official checks the temperature of a Chinese medical expert at Phnom Penh International Airport on March 23. Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP via Getty Images

The Khmer Times, an English-language daily, is not known for criticizing the Cambodian government. Owned by a Malaysian businessman who has been linked to the long-ruling Cambodian People’s Party—and, rumor says, has financial ties to perennial Prime Minister Hun Sen’s children—the publication can be trusted to parrot the party line.

The Khmer Times, an English-language daily, is not known for criticizing the Cambodian government. Owned by a Malaysian businessman who has been linked to the long-ruling Cambodian People’s Party—and, rumor says, has financial ties to perennial Prime Minister Hun Sen’s children—the publication can be trusted to parrot the party line.

So that raises the question of who was behind its attack March 23, when it ran a scathing critique of the Ministry of Health’s handling of Cambodia’s escalating COVID-19 crisis. It began: “Khmer Times has criticized the Ministry of Health on several occasions and even suggested for the Minister to be replaced in the pending Cabinet Reshuffle.” In a rush to heap scorn upon the health minister, it failed to even name him. He is Mam Bunheng. Remember that name, as he’s about to become the fall guy as the COVID-19 crisis worsens in Cambodia.

Cambodia sits right next to China, and travel between the two is frequent. Until recently, however, COVID-19 cases hadn’t shown up—at least officially. That’s probably a result of a lack of testing. On March 22, there was a rise of 31 cases from the previous day. So far, most cases are of foreign tourists, and no one knows quite how high the numbers might spike. What’s certain though, is that Cambodia’s economy will slump this year. Moody’s Investors Service, a subsidiary of the ratings agency, downgraded its gross domestic product growth forecast for Cambodia to 4.5 percent, which, except for a blip in 2009 because of the global financial crisis, would be the worst in two decades. Further downgrades are likely given the global economic situation.

As the crisis worsens, Hun Sen is looking for scapegoats, while a pliant media is seemingly preparing the ground for the Ministry of Health to take the fall. Phnom Penh is accustomed to throwing relatively junior officials under the bus after crises. When a building collapsed in Sihanoukville last year, killing 28 people, Hun Sen fired Nhim Vanda as vice president of the National Committee for Disaster Management. Conveniently, this allowed the prime minister to appoint a close ally, former military commander Kun Kim, onto that committee.

[Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak: Get daily updates on the pandemic and learn how it’s affecting countries around the world.]

Hun Sen, who was ever-present at press conferences and public events between January and early March, has been seen less frequently in recent days. Social media rumors that he contracted COVID-19 last month got a boost when he said March 9 that he would be tested after complaining of a “stuffy nose.” That was weeks ago, and he hasn’t yet revealed if he actually took the test, nor its results if he did. Persistent chitchat that he traveled to Singapore for treatment—as he usually does when sick and unwilling to use his own country’s subpar medical services—are probably false. More likely, he doesn’t want to be seen too publicly nowadays.

Hun Sen’s own complacent decisions and messaging since January have been left out of any criticisms, including the Khmer Times article. These include a litany of gaffes, including his claim that Cambodia was safe from the coronavirus because it couldn’t spread in the country’s sweltering heat. Analysts say that from the beginning, his actions have been motivated more by maintaining good relations with China—now Cambodia’s closest ally and main financial benefactor—than protecting the health of the Cambodian people.

After the coronavirus outbreak was finally revealed by Chinese authorities in late January, Hun Sen followed Beijing’s request and refused to close off transport to and from China. In early February, he became the first and only foreign leader to visit Beijing during the height of its outbreak. There, he pledged his country’s undying loyalty to President Xi Jinping.

A week later, Hun Sen intervened to allow the Westerdam cruise ship to dock in Cambodia’s port of Sihanoukville on Feb. 13, despite it being turned away by other countries. This earned Hun Sen high praise from some in the international community for his humanitarian solidarity (including a thank-you tweet from U.S. President Donald Trump), but Cambodians were less salutary after suggested passengers who tested negative for COVID-19 in Cambodia tested positive once out of the country.

Hun Sen doesn’t just need to protect himself but his allies—including the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces’ generals and its de facto chief, Hun Manet, the prime minister’s eldest son and likely chosen successor, after Cambodia failed to cancel a joint military training exercise with Chinese forces that began March 14.

Only after the center of the epidemic shifted to Europe in mid-March did the Cambodian government begin to take the situation seriously. Since March 14, it has banned travel from several European countries, shut schools and universities, and banned religious gatherings, and it is now trying to prevent people from congregating in public spaces. Travel to neighboring Vietnam and Thailand has also been blocked along most border crossings. On March 25, the government said it was considering whether to declare a “state of emergency” over the crisis, though analysts are still unsure exactly what extra constitutional powers it would give Phnom Penh that it currently doesn’t wield. Hun Sen earlier this month announced a $2 billion fund to help businesses and workers through this crisis.

But it’s the case of too little, too late. Health services are rushing to find space to treat and quarantine potential cases, while the Cambodian public has been panicked by sudden and dramatic requests to self-isolate.

Back in the days of Mao Zedong, Chinese propaganda was seemingly able to convince much of the public that the calamities of the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution were the result of incompetent officials on the ground, not Mao himself. “If only Mao knew” about the poverty and famine, he would do something about it, people thought. Present-day Chinese propaganda is now trying to convince the public that President Xi Jinping isn’t to blame. Provincial officials in Hubei are to blame, state-run newspapers say, and the Chinese people must be grateful to Xi for stepping in to solve the situation only after local officials messed up.

In the coming days and weeks, expect Phnom Penh to try spinning a similar yarn. If only Hun Sen knew about the actual situation on the ground, then Cambodia wouldn’t have been so poorly prepared to tackle this escalating crisis, the ruling party-aligned media will insinuate. How can he be blamed if he received incorrect or delayed information from his ministers, they will ask, as the Khmer Times article implied. But Hun Sen did know—and blame should be laid at his feet, too.

David Hutt is a political journalist who was based in Cambodia between 2014 and 2019. He is the Southeast Asia columnist for the Diplomat.

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