Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen makes an address with Chinese flags in the background. Photo: AFP

Cambodian leader Hun Sen is apparently not worried about the possibility of the deadly and fast-spreading coronavirus killing anyone in his Southeast Asian nation. But he is clearly concerned about maintaining healthy diplomatic and economic relations with China.

On February 13, his government allowed over 2,200 people traveling on the Westerdam cruise ship to dock at its Sihanoukville port after the vast vessel was turned away by five other countries due to fears its passengers might be virally infected.

“Westerdam is now sailing for Sihanoukville, Cambodia, arriving at 7am local time on Feb. 13 & will remain in port for several days for disembarkation,” Holland America Line announced on February 12.

“All approvals have been received & we are extremely grateful to the Cambodian authorities for support,” Holland America Line said on @HALcruises, the ship’s official Twitter site.

The cruise ship, which had been at sea for two weeks before landing in Cambodia, was seen at an offshore anchoring point this morning and will remain in port for several days for disembarkation, news reports said.

None of the passengers or crew are believed to have fallen ill. Japan, Taiwan, Guam, the Philippines and Thailand all turned away the ship due to coronavirus contagion concerns.

The Westerdam cruise ship is seen past Cambodian policemen in protective face masks as it approaches port in Sihanoukville, Cambodia’s southern coast on February 13, 2020. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

At the same time, Hun Sen’s government has opted against evacuating Cambodians trapped in China, where more than 1,100 people have perished from the disease.

Asked about the possibility of evacuating 23 reportedly healthy Cambodian students stuck in the Chinese city of Wuhan, the disease’s epicenter, he replied, “We are keeping them there to share [China’s] happiness and pain, and to help them solve this situation.

“Evacuating them would probably bring an end to opportunities for Cambodians to study there. China would stop offering scholarships.”

In another apparent nod to Beijing, Hun Sen has said everyone in Cambodia should take off their medical face masks and refuse to wear them.

“The prime minister doesn’t wear a mask, so why do you?” he angrily railed at reporters during a news conference in the capital Phnom Penh in recent days.

Hun Sen has also rejected calls to ban flights from China, which reportedly flew at least 3,000 Chinese travelers direct from Wuhan to Cambodia so far this year.

“There is no need to stop flights from China, because doing so would kill our economy and destroy ties with China,” Hun Sen said.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen delivers a statement about the coronavirus outbreak to journalists in Phnom Penh, January 30, 2020. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

China is Cambodia’s closest ally and biggest foreign investor. More than 250,000 Chinese citizens currently live in Cambodia, comprising about 60% of all foreign residents in a country with a population of about 17 million people, according to Cambodia’s Interior Ministry.

Hun Sen’s approach to the coronavirus outbreak showed “important support for China,” Chinese state media Xinhua News announced.

Cambodian critics, however, have responded to Hun Sen’s approach with outrage, mockery, and allegations of selling out national interests to China’s cash in scathing social media posts.

Hun Sen has pointed to official reports of only one in-country infection, a 60-year-old Chinese man from Wuhan who was living in Sihanoukville, where Chinese investors control most of the hotels, factories, apartments, restaurants massage parlors and 80 casinos.

The Sihanoukville Special Economic Zone is a China-Cambodia tax-free economic area linked to China’s US$1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative.

The stricken patient, Jia Jianhau, recovered and was released from quarantine on February 10, the Health Ministry said.

Hun Sen has spent recent years crushing independent media in Cambodia, lending to skepticism that Cambodia has only one viral infection. The country is mostly rural and impoverished, so the number of unreported cases may be much higher, skeptics say.

Mask-clad students line up to disinfect their hands before entering class at a school in Phnom Penh, January 28, 2020. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

“Is there any Cambodian or foreigner in Cambodia who has died of the disease?” Hun Sen asked. “The real disease happening in Cambodia right now is the disease of fear. It is not the coronavirus that occurs in China’s Wuhan city.”

His stance was cheered by China’s President Xi Jinping, who welcomed Hun Sen to Beijing’s Great Hall of the People on February 5.

Hun Sen told Xi that he traveled to China ” to showcase Cambodia’s support to China in fighting the outbreak of the epidemic” and visit Cambodian students quarantined in Wuhan along with the city’s other residents.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, China blocked Hun Sen’s request.

“We fully understand that Prime Minister Hun Sen cares deeply for the Cambodian students in China,” China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said.

“Considering the fact that Wuhan is doing all it can to fight the outbreak, and given the tight schedule, a visit to Wuhan at this moment cannot be properly arranged,” he said.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (R) toast in Phnom Penh in a file photo. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

Hun Sen, a tough-talking, combat-hardened leader, is clearly loathe to publicly display fear of a microscopic virus.

“We have already tasted countless wars and tragedies they had made for us, but we are not dead,” Hun Sen said on February 11, in response to the European Union’s decision to cancel certain of the country’s trade privileges.

That will make Hun Sen’s government all the more reliant on Chinese aid and investment.

China’s infrastructure upgrade for Cambodia includes funding for seven hydropower dams that promise to supply as much as half of the nation’s electricity needs. China has also laid more than 1,800 miles of roads and bridges over the past two decades.

“We only have to cooperate with the Chinese embassy in Cambodia and treat Chinese investors, Chinese special economic zones, Chinese citizens, Chinese tourists who are working in or visiting Cambodia well,” Hun Sen said during a January 30 news conference that touched on coronavirus issues.

Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American correspondent reporting from Asia since 1978.

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  1. It would certainly be of benefit to the people of Cambodia if Hun Sen became infected. He is the only viral infection in Cambodia.

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