Poor Cambodia not looking so 'poor' anymore

Poor Cambodia not looking so 'poor' anymore

Your Excellency Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, thank you for being such a good host during the Asean Summit in Phnom Penh on Tuesday and Wednesday. This visit to Cambodia changed my entire perception of your "poor" nation. Your country has always been labelled as one that still needs to close the gap with the better-developed nations in the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).

Some reasons why this view needs to change are as follows:

- The magnificence of the billions of dollars in aid money that donor nations have poured into your country is visible on the roads as well. Your country takes the cake for perhaps having the highest number of Lexus vehicles per capita. Everywhere Cambodians are driving a Lexus, and Bangkokians would probably feel out of place if they came here in their cars or SUVs.

To top it off, these gas guzzlers are not fitted with liquefied petroleum gas in the fashion that many Thais choose. Cambodians really know how to splurge money on the things they like.

- The city itself was as clean as could be but then I give the credit to your government for having managed to scrub it to the point where it was looking as spotless as Singapore, at least in those areas where delegates were either visiting or staying. What was more surprising was the fact that in the three days I stayed in your city, I saw only three beggars. Is this because your country has exported them all to its neighbours or is there a government policy to fine or imprison them? This was not just in the summit area but also in areas where tourists visit such as the Central Bazaar among others. I think letting other Asean members in on the secret about this would be really helpful, and it would show how Cambodia is implementing its "One Community, One Destiny" theme of the 2012 Asean chairmanship.

- You showed your true colours during the press conference. As chairman of the Asean grouping you managed to steal the limelight and focus purely on Cambodia and its domestic politics.

Your ramblings about Sam Rainsy and how Cambodia was not a puppet of China for 40 minutes out of the 60-minute press conference gave an indication perhaps that some wheeling and dealing had taken place before the summit.

Why would anyone ramble and defend oneself and one's country about a thing that is not true for so long? In doing so you lost the opportunity of a decade to show your leadership to the world by telling everyone how you would like to see Asean develop.

- Chinese President Hu Jintao was on a state visit to your country until just a day before the summit. Massive posters of him were still plastered around the city when the summit took place. At the same time you managed to omit the crucial issue of disputed areas in the South China Sea from discussions, prompting many to feel that the Chinese leader was in Cambodia to lobby against putting the issue on the agenda.

The issue of the South China Sea impacts so many of your fellow Asean members but still you ignored it.

- To add even more fuel to this speculative fire you went on to praise China for giving your country aid money with no strings attached.

Now what kind of message does that send to the outside world?

In venting your ire on the western world, which I would have to say has supported your "poor" country for decades with funding, you came out to say that you do not want money from overseas with strings attached to implement changes in the way your country's system is handled.

Sir, which organisation in the West or even the East (except China) gives out funds with no strings attached?

Quite apart from how great your city looked, I don't believe funding from western countries is required in your country anymore as the word "poor" probably now only applies to the rural population. I personally don't believe that the funding ever reaches those Cambodians in real need in any case.

- To make matters worse you managed to intimidate a journalist from your own country when you said "you had better get your facts right because there is live coverage going on". Rather than taking the opportunity to show a softer side of yourself, you managed to cement your image as a hard-bitten strongman.

Sir, I may have asked too many questions here but as a first-time visitor to your "poor" country, I was left in total shock at how your city is much more beautiful than my own Bangkok. Your city has everything and yet you still have your begging bowl out asking for money from richer countries.

Umesh Pandey is Asia Focus Editor, Bangkok Post.

Umesh Pandey

Bangkok Post Editor

Umesh Pandey is Editor, Bangkok Post.

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