Op-Ed: Cambodia’s Diplomacy in a Competitive World

In an impromptu comment to a group of diplomatic trainees last week at the National Institute of Diplomacy and International Relations, Cambodia’s Deputy Prime Minister Prak Sokhonn, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, told them, “Protecting the country’s interests are among the top priority of every Cambodian diplomat”. His comment, at the closing ceremonies for the trainees on the June 3, 2020, intrigued me a great deal as a son of this country that went through so much suffering as the result of the Cold War ideological clashes which over-shadowed Cambodia in the late 1960s and throughout the 1980s.

The key five factors

The Deputy Prime Minister’s statement reflects that one can tell whether a country is in good shape or not by looking at five main elements: the patriotism, the leadership, human resources, geography, and natural resources of a country.

For Cambodia, I would say she has four of those elements, excepting one which is “the geography”.

Recall the country’s bad past experiences when the French ruled Cambodia as part of Indochina from 1887 till 1953. After the French pulled out in 1953, America landed on Indo-China, amid the Cold War era, and a new war emerged, the Vietnam War, known as the American War in Vietnam.

America’s longest war, from 1965 to 1974, pulled Cambodia into part of this game because of our geography and geopolitics. None of us want those bad experiences due to geopolitics to be repeated. To achieve this, a smart, flexible, friendly and inclusive foreign policy is needed and we must play the several cards needed for Cambodia’s diplomacy today.

It is worth recalling the statement by the Deputy Prime Minister last week that, “we must build good relations with leadership, politicians, the influential figures in the hosting countries, building good relations with the people, business communities, among others.”

It is fair to ask do we have leverage, as a modest nation, to win the hearts and minds of others? The answer is, yes, we do have a great deal going for us, along with skillful diplomacy. And we have unmatched resources for so-called soft diplomacy, the diplomacy of cultural influence.

The Kingdom of wonder is known to the outside world as an empire of culture, mainly thanks to the famed Angkor temple built in the 12th century, listed in 1992 as World Heritage Site, and stretched over a complex of more than 400 square kilometres in Siem Reap province.

Another ancient temple, the 1,000-year-old Preah Vihear in the province of the same name near the Thai border. Other ancient temples built about 1,000 years ago, some still collapsed partially, other still in good shape which are valuable assets for cultural tourism.

So, in terms of cultural tourism, Cambodia has so much to tell, in addition to eco-tourism and the historical sites of the killing fields, a legacy of the Pol Pot who ruled our country with bloody hands during the genocidal regime from April 17, 1975 to January 7, 1979. More than 2 million Cambodians died of execution, starvation, forced labor and diseases.

Cambodia has had too many bad past experiences as a result, partially due to its diplomacy, the domestic conflicts, and the external interference of super powers. So, let us join hands with Prime Minister Hun Sen, who led the country’s resurrection from scratch and negotiated to bring about peace and development through his win-win policy in late 1998.

So, protecting peace is the number one on the agenda and will continue to sit on the top of the government’s political platform.

The Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation reminded us, “We must protect peace, stability, and social order from any attempts to plunge Cambodia again into war. We totally oppose any attempt to topple this legitimate government which resulted from super majority of votes.”

Today, the term “Thank you, Peace” is seen posted in many intersections and government office buildings as a reminder that, without peace there is nothing but war. This message of protecting peace continues to stay deep down in our people. Rooted in the head and heart of every Cambodian from every walk of life is peace.

But one should remember that, Cambodia, as a result of domestic divisions in ancient times, lost land to others. So, a Cambodian diplomat must also pay attention to protect the interest of Cambodia, such as protecting the country’s territorial integrity from violation by others.

“We must protect the country’s sovereignty, independence, prosperity from being looked down on by anyone,” said the Deputy Prime Minister with a firm tone of diplomatic skill.

Here are some fruitful examples from Cambodia’s mature and diplomatic skills.

The Three Levels Cambodia plays

At “the national level”, the Royal Government of Cambodia, under the great leadership of Prime Minister Hun Sen, is moving forward in all fronts.

Domestic reforms have been improved in all fields, such as investment policy, tax law, among other aspects, which has contributed to making the country one of the fasting growing economy in the region.

Hundreds of thousands of local job created, revenues collected, the country’s physical infrastructures mushrooming; and investors making profits from exporting the products to overseas markets who are friends of Cambodia.

Recall when Deputy Prime Minister—who himself spent more than 20 years in his diplomatic career—said that “working as diplomat needs to contribute to boosting our economy by implementing the political platform of economic diplomacy, tourism, and culture. Given the fact, that no country can succeed without considering the economic aspect, as a priority, onto its diplomatic agenda list”.

Here you go… this is exactly what we mean by new Cambodia’s diplomacy.

“Cambodia’s embassy and its diplomatic mission have the obligation of promoting Cambodia to become an investment destination, to keep it on investors radar and encourage tourism along with broadcasting the wide range of Cambodia’s products, the value of historical culture, and Khmer tradition,” said Deputy Prime Minister Prak Sokhonn, who himself was also the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications, surviving the Khmer Rouge rule.

At “the regional level”, Cambodia continues to have its voice heard well when it comes to the regional level, such as the ASEAN forum, to ensure the region continues to live in harmony.

Yes, the issue of the South China Sea is still an outstanding issue for the ten regional leaders to address through diplomatic means; while a super power from the west, I do not want to identify, interfered with the SCS issue, China is progressively working with the concerned parties peacefully through the ASEAN diplomatic forum, such as the declaration on the conduct [DOC] of parties in the south china sea, and a Code of Conduct (CoC) for SCS.

In this respect, Cambodia has to work carefully through diplomatic approaches since her resources still lag behind of others.

Cambodia however is playing a greater role in addressing regional issues of social, cultural, and economic aspects, along with ASEAN member states she joined the bloc in 1999.

This Southeast Asian nation also knows its role and diplomatic scope well and will oppose whoever accuses Cambodia of favoring one side and putting aside another.

At the same time, Cambodia, although a small nation and will always be so, her diplomatic voice is not as loud but getting greater as it progresses since it learned from bad past experiences, especially throughout the 1970s and 1980s, and integrated into the international community and that Cambodia must protect its image and interests when there is any baseless allegation or criticism against Cambodia.

“Being a diplomat, one has to come out and counter any malign and defaming of Cambodia,” said the Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Prak Sokhonn, repeatedly since he wants to make sure that all Cambodian diplomats continue to bear these terms in their hearts and heads and be aware of the sensitive diplomatic atmosphere and every move they make.

The United Nations has thumbed up Cambodia, as one of the most active member of ASEAN, sent more than 6,000 of its non-combat troops to assist the United Nations operations to deal with humanitarian works in five countries in Africa.

Other works

Despite Cambodia moving on right track in terms of domestic reforms, greater cooperation at the regional and international forums and its diplomats did not and will not turn a blind-eye to its citizens, who live overseas, who faced hardship.

“Good management of Cambodian diplomatic missions is needed—although we have small staffs and operations overseas. But along with disciplined and harmonious working together, our missions can respond to the scope of workloads from multiple fields,” he said.

However, as an observer while working as a spokesman, I see that for Cambodia’s embassies and diplomatic missions in big countries, such as China, Republic of Korea, Japan, where Cambodia enjoys great mutual interest, a greater investment of staff and resources should be made to facilitate the workload as this will also contribute to attracting more tourists and investments on the top of gaining diplomatic support and presence, among others.


Source: Agency Kampuchea Press