Published daily by the Lowy Institute

The more things change...

The more things change...
Published 30 Mar 2015 

Two events over the past week leave an observer to conclude that change will only come slowly in Cambodia so long as Hun Sen is prime minister. The first relates to the Khmer Rouge Tribunal (the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, ECCC), the second to Michelle Obama's visit.

On 5 March I recorded in The Interpreter that Judge Mark Harmon, one of the international judges at the ECCC, had charged two former Khmer Rouge figures with crimes against humanity. My post noted that, for these charges to progress to indictment, it was necessary for judge Harmon's decision to be endorsed by his Cambodian counterpart on the tribunal, judge You Bunleng.

During the past week judge Harmon has charged another former Khmer Rouge figure, former Central Zone deputy secretary Ao An, better known as Ta An, and again judge You Bunleng has so far not joined with Harmon to move to indictment.

The Cambodian Government, and particularly Hun Sen, has made clear its opposition to the ECCC continuing to work towards indicting additional defendants, so it is not surprising that judge You Bunleng has not acted to support judge Harmon. What is not clear is what happens now. So far judge You Bunleng is reported as saying that he will 'continue the discussion' with his counterpart. That discussion could go on for some time.

Meanwhile, in a speech that will not be welcomed by Washington, Prime Minister Hun Sen has chosen to express a critical judgment on Michelle Obama's visit to Cambodia, reported in The Interpreter on 23 March. According to the Phnom Penh Post, Hun Sen argued that the US should pay for scholarships for the ten students the First Lady met in Siem Reap. Hun Sen accused the first lady of making false promises about paying for the scholarships, a claim denied by the US Embassy:

Her [Obama's] mission is very good, but I suggest the United States should help completely and not play like this,' he said. 'It is just playing around ­ it is not good. What if she chose 300 students? It would be death. I don't have that money to give.

Although the tone of Hun Sen's speech is not really surprising in the light of his sometimes critical view of the US, his readiness to make these observations so soon after the Michelle Obama visit is puzzling to the extent that it undermines any sense that the visit might have involved a rapprochement between the two countries.

Photo by US Embassy, Phnom Penh.

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