UPDATED at 1:14 p.m. EDT on 05-04-2023
Prime Minister Hun Sen has announced that he – and not Cambodia’s king – would preside over Friday’s opening ceremony of the Southeast Asian Games, provoking criticism from exiled dissidents who say he is disrespecting the monarchy.
Cambodia is hosting the Southeast Asian region's premier sporting event for the first time. The May 5-17 games will include 11 nations in the region competing in 36 events, and the country has built a new Chinese-funded 60,000 seat stadium for the occasion.
In host countries, including monarchies, the sitting head of state is usually given the honor of declaring the start of the games at the opening ceremony.
Though King Norodom Sihamoni is the official head of state in Cambodia, he rarely exercises his limited powers granted by the constitution and tries to avoid getting involved in politics.
Hun Sen, 70, has ruled Cambodia since 1985, and is believed to be manipulating the government and the country’s laws in an attempt to pass his role as leader to his son Hun Manet before retiring.
The country is scheduled to hold national elections in July that the ruling Cambodian People’s Party is widely expected to win.
At the groundbreaking ceremony for the Sihanoukville container terminal on Monday, Hun Sen mocked his detractors.
"You should know well, if you do not know well, don’t act like you are so wise and do not be arrogant and incite conflict between the king and the prime minister,” he said.
“The king does not take the role of prime minister, and the prime minister does not take on the role of the king, just as [the king] carried the torch before the SEA Games while the prime minister walked along with him,” he said.
Finland-based political analyst Kim Sok told Radio Free Asia that Hun Sen’s slight was destroying the achievements of the king, the former king and the ancestors of the Khmer people.
“This is not only a violation of the role of the king, but a betrayal of the throne and the king, not only in front of the Cambodian people, but in front of international guests around the world," he said.
Driving a wedge
Hun Sen’s critics are trying to discredit him by trying to show that there’s a split between the prime minister and monarchy, said David Hutt, a journalist and researcher for the Central European Institute of Asian Studies.
“It’s a way for anti-CPP critics to try to paint Hun Sen as unpatriotic, given that he taints most opponents as traitors,” said Hutt. “They probably also reckon it might turn some ordinary Cambodians against the ruling party. But the monarchy has been a political football for some time.”
Tensions between Hun Sen and the royal house arise because of the monarchy’s protections, he said.
“After all, the monarchy is the only institution left in Cambodia that [Hun Sen’s] ruling party cannot completely dominate,” said Hutt. “Maybe Hun Sen has long thought it may become a rival institution, although that’s less so with King Norodom Sihamoni compared to his father.”
Hutt said that Hun Sen sees himself as a monarch, as he is preparing a dynastic succession of the prime ministership to his son.
But Kim Sok denied that he and other critics only want to drive a wedge between the king and the prime minister, and compared the treatment of the monarchy with other neighboring monarchies.
"In Thailand, when there are big sports events, both national and international, before the athletes enter the arena, they prepare the king's portrait for the athletes to respect him before entering the arena,” Kim Sok said. “But in the Kingdom of Cambodia, we have not seen such preparations yet.”
Hun Sen tends to get angry whenever his critics call him out on his disrespect, Bangkok-based social development researcher Seng Sary said.
"The prime minister seems to feel uncomfortable when he is compared to the king, who is protected by the constitution,” said Seng Sary. “The monarchy is a supreme institution that cannot be violated, but the prime minister is only the chairman of the executive branch."
Meanwhile, a Thailand-based international Buddhist organization has granted Hun Sen the honorary title “Patron of the World,” and made his son Hun Manet an honorary “senior advisor,” confusing some members of the organization.
The Venerable Buth Buntenh, who lives in exile in Massachusetts, said the Cambodian leader does not deserve the title and he does not understand why the organization gave it to him.
“Hun Sen has committed the highest immoral things in Cambodian society,” the monk said, adding that under Hun Sen’s rule, monks have lived in repressive conditions that rival the time when the country was ruled by Pol Pot’s regime, during which the Khmer Rouge defrocked and killed them.
“But now, under the rule of Hun Sen, monks are defrocked and put in jail. Or monks are shot dead by unidentified gunmen.” said Buth Buntenh.” So, the Khmer Rouge regime and Hun Sen are the same in terms of persecution of the Buddhists.”
Translated by Sok Ry Sum. Edited by Eugene Whong and Malcolm Foster.
UPDATE: Adds background information on the SEA Games.
This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by By RFA Khmer.