The splashy sporting extravaganza drawing to a close in Phnom Penh on Wednesday featured 12,000 participants from 11 nations and included free tickets, free food and free accommodations – and also helped Prime Minister Hun Sen shine on an international stage just before a national election.
The Southeast Asia Games, hosted by Cambodia for the first time, featured a US$150 million stadium built by China specifically for the event.
And on the first day, Hun Sen presided over an elaborate opening ceremony stage-managed by Chinese technicians. King Norodom Sihamoni, Cambodia’s constitutional monarch and head of state, did not attend.
The stage and light show highlighted the prime minister’s achievements since he took power in 1985 and portrayed him as a national unifier after the dark years of civil war and Khmer Rouge rule. But the cost of the event has prompted some grumbling in Cambodia, where the economy continues to lag after the COVID pandemic.
Youth activist Kim Chilin was proud that Cambodia could host a big regional event, but questioned the decision to cover the costs for everything, and the way Hun Sen exploited the event to boost his reputation.
“The ruling party is using this event to promote themselves and for political gain,” he said. “You cannot claim for your own credit or say that it came from the ‘big heart’ of the prime minister.”
‘Grab the attention of the public’
Cambodia picked up the US$7 million cost of hosting and feeding athletes from visiting nations by waiving the daily US$50 per person that is normally charged to each sports delegation.
Hun Sen said he did that to bring in more competitors for the games, which included 608 events across 37 sports.
“I am not hostile to the money, but the fact that we didn’t take this money was to attract more foreigners to visit and know about Cambodia,” he said in a speech in Sihanoukville on April 30. “If we took that money, we still couldn’t become rich.”
About 5,000 sports delegates stayed at a newly constructed “Sports Village,” while another 2,000 stayed at four-star hotels near the stadium.
Just before the games began, the prime minister mandated that all Cambodia television channels show the events.
“Wake up all TV stations! Please broadcast the SEA Games events!” he said. “Public and private TV stations must broadcast the SEA Games to bring nationwide excitement!”
He also ordered free entrance tickets for local and foreign spectators and granted free broadcasting rights for local and foreign media.
“These were all crazy ideas,” Finland-based political analyst Kim Sok said.
The US$7 million spent on the visiting athletes is normally picked up by the competitors’ home countries, he said.
“But we didn’t ask that from them,” he said. “I don’t know why he doesn’t take that money? We could take it and spend half of it to develop our sports and use the other half as a prize for our athletes.”
For Heng Kimsour, a university student in Phnom Penh, the games have been exciting and a source of pride for a country that has waited more than six decades to host the regional Olympiad.
“We have shown our rich culture and civilization to the world,” she said.
“Nevertheless, Cambodia has spent millions of dollars to organize this event while we are still a developing country,” she said. “It seems like the government hosts the free SEA Games to grab the attention of the public so that they forget about politics and the election, as well as the illegal privatization of natural resources.”
The new 60,000-seat national stadium was originally announced as a gift from China to Cambodia, but its name – “Morodok Techo” – means “Hun Sen’s Inheritance.”
Hun Sen admitted that his government couldn’t have hosted the games without China, and he publicly thanked Chinese President Xi Jingping during the Sihanoukville speech.
“Other ASEAN countries have already hosted the SEA Games; why didn’t Cambodia do it?” he said.
“I told the ASEAN counterparts to understand that I needed money to build infrastructure, accelerate social and economic development and reduce poverty. We needed roads, bridges, irrigation systems, schools, hospitals. We needed money to build them up.”
Once the Chinese began building the stadium in 2013, Hun Sen told Minister of Tourism Thong Khon to prepare to host the games, he said.
China also helped with the May 5 opening ceremony. At the end of January, a team of nearly 100 people arrived in Cambodia to start working and rehearsing, Chinese director Chen Wei Tan told China Radio International.
The technical team was divided into directing, acting, lighting, sound and musical composition. Lights and LCD screens were also brought from China, Chen said.
“The Cambodian government needed help from China to organize the great opening ceremony and create a new image to the world,” he said. “We use our wisdom and power so that Cambodia and China can build up ‘a Community of Common Destiny’ with high quality and standards.”
“Community of Common Destiny” is a phrase from a 2017 speech by Xi Jinping often used in Chinese foreign policy to promote mutual cooperation with neighboring countries.
Television commentators were heard using another slogan that is also often used in Chinese foreign policy: “Win-win.”
During the opening ceremony broadcast, the announcers praised the prime minister and spoke of his time in power as the “Techo” era. “Techo,” which means powerful or strong, and references an ancient Khmer warrior, is one of Hun Sen’s leadership honorifics.
“The win-win policy of the extraordinary founder and leader in the Techo-era fully and genuinely ended the civil war, bringing peace and full national unity, paving the way for a prosperous future and confidence and giving each and every Cambodian citizen the rights to hope, freedom and (a) warm smile,” the ceremony’s narrator said.
“Thanks for a win-win policy!”
Translated by Yang Chandara. Edited by Matt Reed and Malcolm Foster.
This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by By RFA Khmer.