Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen accused unnamed foreigners of “a campaign to slander” his country amid claims a Chinese-funded expansion of a prominent southern naval base is in fact establishing a foreign base for Chinese forces.
A report by The Wall Street Journal in 2019 said that Phnom Penh and Beijing had signed a pact to allow the Chinese military to use the Ream Naval Base, which lies on the northern stretch of the Gulf of Thailand and provides ready access to the South China Sea.
Such a move would be in violation of Cambodia’s 1993 Constitution, which prohibits the construction of foreign bases in the country.
Hun Sen said at a graduation ceremony at Build Bright University in Phnom Penh on Thursday that such reports are part of a “campaign to slander Cambodia by foreigners and politicians.”
“Unless you want to cause us harm, is it wrong that we are strengthening our military ports? It’s Cambodian territory – Cambodia has a right to expand Cambodia’s naval capabilities,” Hun Sen said, explaining that Ream desperately needed deepening.
“We want to build a complete navy base,” he said, denying the base would be used to wage war. “It’s not a threat against anyone.”
Critics of Beijing’s alleged plans for Ream point to Article 53 of Cambodia’s Constitution, which says the country “shall not permit any foreign military base on its territory” and must maintain “a policy of permanent neutrality.”
American officials have repeatedly called for Cambodia to be transparent about the true plans for Ream.
Bird’s eye view
The initial report in The Wall Street Journal has been followed by a spate of reports quoting U.S. officials saying they believe the base is intended for use by China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy, including in The Washington Post. Satellite imagery of the construction has also shown extensive development of the site already completed.
Radio Free Asia on Feb. 22 published satellite images from Planet Labs that show land clearance and new construction at the base. On Tuesday, Naval Technology, an industry news website, published more images from geospatial intelligence firm BlackSky.
During his speech on Thursday, Hun Sen reiterated that he appreciated China’s help with expanding the base despite the widespread criticism, and added that he did not care if “foreigners” obtained satellite images of Ream’s ongoing development.
Criticism from foreigners about the expansion is fine, he said, so long as the critics in turn accept the explanations he provides.
“Cambodia accepts that [criticism], but when we explain to them that it is important to develop our military sector to prevent crimes and our [protect our] sovereignty, they refuse to accept it,” he said.
Hun Sen has long been a critic of both the United States and foreign media, having cut his political teeth in two wars involving America.
In the 1970s, he fought for the Khmer Rouge against the U.S.-backed Lon Nol regime in Cambodia’s first civil war, and was then foreign minister and prime minister of the Vietnamese-backed regime that ousted Pol Pot from power and fought another civil war against a U.S.-backed coalition of forces in the 1980s.
The United States has also been one of Hun Sen’s most vocal critics since Cambodia’s 1990s peace, with Republican lawmakers in particular calling for administrations to oppose his continued rule.
Em Sovannara, an independent political commentator, told Radio Free Asia he believed Hun Sen was bringing up Ream now due to the U.S. government’s criticism of his treatment of opposition leader Kem Sokha, who was this month sentenced to 27 years of house arrest for “treason” over an alleged U.S.-backed coup plot.
Sovannara said he feared an escalation in tensions between the United States and Cambodia to the point of five years ago, when American lawmakers threatened to remove Cambodia’s trade privileges. The U.S. market accounts for more than a third of Cambodian exports.
"Cambodia is a small country. It relies on trade from the West, especially with the United States,” he said. “If the two countries don't have a good relationship, it will affect Cambodia’s foreign policy and economy. It will make things difficult for the country's development.”
Another political commentator, Seng Sary, told RFA he believed Hun Sen needed to find a better way to get his message across, and that accusing critics of a conspiracy was not helping the premier’s case.
“Cambodia needs to find a good way to explain to the international community that Cambodia wants to strengthen its naval capabilities and its trade, rather than mocking and insulting people,” he said.
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