Background Briefing: Cambodia’s Hun Sen on Relations with ASEAN and Vietnam, by Carlyle A. Thayer, 29August, 2016.

The original report is reproduced below and can also be downloaded by clicking onto Thayer Hun Sen on ASEAN and South China Sea (002).

[client name deleted]

QUESTION 1. Apparently Hun Sen mentioned an unnamed Australian analyst in a speech yesterday, saying that this analyst had called for the removal of Cambodia from ASEAN. Hun Sen said that he would not let Cambodia leave the Association.

Meanwhile, Cambodia’s National Assembly voted to request removal of a paragraph on the South China Sea from a forthcoming ASEAN statement at AIPA in September. But do Hun Sen’s remarks suggest that he’s taking that threat – of expulsion from ASEAN — seriously? Will ASEAN continue to repeat this back and forth at future meetings?

ANSWER. There are also signs that relations between Vietnam and Cambodia are deteriorating. First there was this Facebook exchange earlier this week with a Vietnamese user who commented on Hun Sen’s wall saying “Cambodia will eventually be poisoned and exterminated by cn [China],” to which PM Hun Sen responded (see below).

Hun Sen

This post has since been taken down.

Also, there have been recent cases of Vietnamese building across the Cambodian border, in defiance of Cambodian wishes, and prior Facebook dust-ups similar to the one above.

QUESTION 2. Where do Vietnam and Cambodia stand at the moment diplomatically? How is the South China Sea dispute affecting relations? And is the Cambodia People’s Party’s old friendship with Hanoi in jeopardy?

ANSWER: According to Cambodian sources I was mentioned by name in a Khmer address Hun Sen gave on Cambodian TV. No, I do not think Hun Sen is taking the threat of suspending or terminating Cambodia’s membership in ASEAN seriously. In my opinion, he is reacting to anything he views as being critical of his position on the South China Sea. However, I draw your attention to remarks made in Singapore by Vietnam’s President Tran Dai Quang reported in the Today newspaper on 30th August in response to Dr. Le Hong Hiep.

When asked by Dr. Hiep how Vietnam perceives ASEAN’s recent difficulties in getting consensus on the South China Sea, Today noted that “Mr Quang reported that Asean has played a critical role in the settlement of regional disputes, adding that member states should explore more diplomatic mechanisms.” Today then quoted President Quang, “’We all know that the principle of consensus is enshrined in the Asean Charter… But given the new developments, we may consider and supplement the principle (of consensus) with other mechanisms,’ he said without elaborating.”

Quite obviously Vietnam and Cambodia hold different views on how ASEAN should respond to China’s actions in the South China Sea. Vietnam is mature enough to view Hun Sen’s comments on Face Book as driven by domestic concerns, that is, playing on anti-Vietnamese sentiment. I do not think it has resulted in any marked deterioration in state to state relations despite Hun Sen’s reply to Bao Lam asking rhetorically if Bao Lam’s words are his own or the leaders of Vietnam. Hun Sen’s use of Facebook is to use social media to recoup his image among the youth in Cambodia, and to demonstrate that Hun Sen is in control. Suggestions that Sam Rainsy will face new charges in November, is an example of Hun Sen toying with the opposition.

As I have noted before, some Cambodian insiders feel that Hun Sen’s approach to the South China Sea is more about paying back outside criticism for Cambodia’s human rights abuses and short comings in democracy than it is over foreign policy. If Hun Sen took the advice of the US, EU and Japan he would in effect be undermining his ability to control the electoral process to keep his regime in power. His comments on the South China Sea are music to China’s ears and China rewards loyalty without insisting on democratic reforms or improvements in human rights.

On the South China Sea: Vietnam just received a visit by China’s State Councilor and Vietnam’s Defence Minister is currently visiting Beijing. Cambodia’s role is marginal but its activism on the South China Sea does undermine ASEAN’s prestige.

  • Carlyle A. Thayer, “Cambodia’s Hun Sen on Relations with ASEAN and Vietnam,” Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, August 29 and 31, 2016. All background briefs are posted on (search for Thayer).
  • Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues and other research support to selected clients. Thayer Consultancy was officially registered as a small business in Australia in 2002.



In the toolbar of this website, click on “NEWS” for the drop down menu which includes: