Hun Sen is making waves as rotational chairman of the ASEAN bloc. Photo: AFP / Tang Chhin Sothy

The day after I published an opinion piece here in Asia Times on November 12 (Cambodia should be worried about the Biden presidency), Sim Vireak responded in this same publication with what was styled as a retort of my arguments. I’m thankful any time I start a debate, but I feel a more formal response is in order given his official rank.  

Readers of his piece might have wanted to be informed that, as well as his academic titles, Sim Vireak is an official at Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the director general of the General Department of ASEAN, no less. In fact, he holds the honorific “his excellency,” reserved for high-ranking officials.

In his bio for Asia Times, as well as his other publications, however, he only describes himself as a “career diplomat,” an innuendo probably not motivated by humility. One must then wonder whether his words are his own personal ones or those shared by the Foreign Ministry.

His honorific and status would suggest he speaks on behalf of the Cambodian government. His colleagues in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations may want to pay attention as well.

Now, let’s go through his “response” methodically and in diplomatic language.

After writing that his article is a response to mine, Sim Vireak begins: “Cambodia is not a criminal, and the US is not a police officer or prosecutor.” For sure, but my article stated neither of these two observations. This is a lesson for any young Cambodian analyst of how one shouldn’t intentionally mischaracterize your opponent’s arguments from the outset.

He goes on to make a few reasonable arguments, but none are repudiations of what I had written, and they are so glaringly obvious that they need not have been stated.

I never argued Cambodia has to become “anti-China,” nor did I say that Cambodia’s relationship with the US has been stable for decades. My argument was that US-Cambodia relations went downhill massively in early 2017 when Phnom Penh unilaterally canceled joint military drills with the US.

(In fact, Sim Vireak never seems to know whether he thinks US-Cambodia relations have always been stable, something he suggests later in the piece but rejects earlier on.)

In the fifth paragraph we find his first major effort to distort the truth. He writes that “those [governments] who are not anti-China will be subject to trade and political sanctions just like what the European Union did to withdraw partially the trade preference from Cambodia under the facade of concern for human rights and democracy. Again, it does not make sense, because some of the EU’s closest friends are not necessarily democratic.”

Clearly, Sim Vireak does not understand either EU policy or the way it was used over Cambodia – and this raises the question of whether senior Cambodian officials like “his excellency” even listened to what the EU has been saying for years.

Since Brussels first threatened to remove Cambodia’s trade privileges, it was clear that this was only because of democratic backsliding in the country, namely the forced dissolution of the only viable opposition party in late 2017 and the arrest of its leader for treason. On both counts, this stemmed from accusations that the opposition party was plotting a US-backed coup, a claim every court in Cambodia has so far delayed prosecuting.

More to the point, the EU cares little about China’s friendship with other states, and certainly not with Cambodia.

His argument is typical of Cambodian officials and some academics, though. Instead of actually dealing with the question of how the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has greatly weakened the country’s democratic institutions and repressed elected officials, they cry hypocrisy and pity.

Also pay attention to his comment: “Some of the EU’s closest friends are not necessarily democratic.” He says so without actually naming them, though, and he supposedly means this to suggest that Cambodia was unfairly punished. Would he care to say which undemocratic state he reckons Brussels should have sanctioned before Cambodia?

One might also ask which countries he is referring to when he writes that “those who are anti-China are being treated like trendy superstars or first-tier countries while those who have good relations with China are being treated like convicts or second-tier countries.”

Sim Vireaks’s ASEAN partners may want to take notice, for this appears very much as if he is referring to Vietnam. Notice that earlier in his piece, he writes: “It is now common to see that some countries are adopting a ‘friend selection criterion’ that categorizes friends as those who are anti-China, regardless of whether those friends are communist or democratic” [my emphasis]. This can only be a reference to Vietnam.  

Moving on, his next few arguments are simply incoherent. True, “Cambodia doesn’t choose American presidents, nor does America choose Cambodian prime ministers,” but no serious thinker suggests this is the case. But then he fails to grasp the purpose of my original argument when he writes: “Suggesting that a specific US administration is good or bad for Cambodia does not change Cambodia’s inclination to enhance friendship and cooperation with all United States’ administrations.”

No one says that it does; my original argument only suggested that, as has been the case for centuries, sovereign states modify their behavior to appeal to other sovereign states. That’s called foreign policy.

The reader could be forgiven for then quickly skipping over his next few paragraphs, which provide a rather confused explanation of the US Electoral College system, an issue that clearly has no merit as a rebuttal of my article. However, the reader might pick up an insinuation here.

Sim Vireak writes that “although it is highly likely that Joe Biden will be the next president of the United States, which I have nothing against, the US president and vice-president are not elected directly by citizens” [my emphasis].

Since Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has not yet officially congratulated Joe Biden on his victory, is Sim Vireak (and remember he is a Ministry of Foreign Affairs official) insinuating that Donald Trump wasn’t defeated or is he contesting Biden’s legitimacy as president-elect? Is there any other reason for his lengthy digression into the intricacies of US electoral matters?  

Shortly afterward, Sim Vireak writes: “David Hutt seems to suggest that the Biden presidency will likely take a strong stance on human rights and democracy, and that this is something for Cambodia to worry about.” I do, indeed, suggest this. But he never argues why this won’t be the case. Indeed, at no point does he even try to argue against my observation that a Biden presidency will alter how the US engages with Cambodia.

Only toward the end of this piece do we find an “attempt” at rebutting my points. He writes that “it does not make sense to argue that one is respecting Cambodia’s sovereignty and independence, but one doesn’t let Cambodia makes its own choices.”

Clearly, his eyes must have moved too quickly over my article, for my entire argument is that Cambodia does have agency. If I didn’t think that, I wouldn’t have written an article suggesting that it might want to change its policy. As for making its own choices, sure, but making wrong ones will backfire on the Cambodian people, as was the case with the EU’s removal of trade privileges.   

Then we are informed: “As Hutt suggested, Cambodia needs to worry all the time what the US might think when dealing with China.” I didn’t say that. What I actually wrote was that Phnom Penh should be wary when doing specific things that it knows are very sensitive in Washington now.

That includes the tearing down last week of a second US-built facility at the Ream Naval Base, when tearing the first one down in September caused the Pentagon again to state publicly its worries about Chinese troops being allowed on Cambodian soil.

Also, I never said the Cambodian government didn’t have the right to tear the facility down, or that the US should be compensated. I said that it is “a sign that Phnom Penh is either swaggeringly indifferent about American sensitivities or still doesn’t quite understand the risks.” That doesn’t deny or infringe on Cambodian agency – indeed, it affirms Cambodian agency.

He also believes that “Hutt suggested that Cambodia’s demolition of a US-sponsored building and the constant rumors of Cambodia’s intention to host a Chinese military base are the major sources of concern.” I didn’t just suggest this; we know for a fact that this is one reason for distrust between Washington and Phnom Penh, while the CPP’s own officials have claimed that such “rumors” hurt the Cambodian people.

Sim Vireak then closes his article with several long-winded paragraphs that repeat the increasingly dull and lifeless slogan we hear from Phnom Penh any time anyone even comments on an action by the Cambodian government; that it infringes upon its “sovereignty.” One would need to spill a lot of ink to explain how the Cambodian government has made “sovereignty” more closely resemble the claim that a foreigner has no right to critique or even talk about the actions of the Cambodian government.

One also hears from Sim Vireak the sort of self-pity that so easily tumbles from the mouths of his fellow officials these days – and, indeed, from his fellow scholar-officials.

“As a nation emerging from war, Cambodia is infrastructure-hungry,” he informs us, obviously not remembering that Hun Sen’s “win-win” policy to end Cambodia’s civil war was almost 25 years ago. And that more than half of Cambodians alive today were born after the Paris Peace Accords.

A question for the government and Sim Vireak: when are Cambodians ever going to be allowed to “have emerged” from their past? I know the answer: Never.

The ruling party has built its legitimacy on repeatedly telling the Cambodian people that their society is anarchic and violent, and only the strong rule of the CPP government stops the country descending back into the brutality of the past. This Hobbesian view of ordinary Cambodians presented by their government needs to end. Cambodians aren’t inherently violent or brutal, and Cambodian society isn’t on the edge of anarchy, despite what Hun Sen seems to think.

Sim Vireak’s historical acumen must also be questioned when he writes: “If history is any indication, over more than seven decades, the bilateral friendship between Cambodia and the US has never changed regardless of shifts of administrations.”

Not only does this contradict what he wrote previously, including in the preceding sentences, but is he saying that Washington’s friendship with the ousted Khmer Rouge during the 1980s – and when the US blacklisted the CPP government that Sim Vireak is now a member of – should be praised or is comparable to today?

If history is any indication, this bilateral “friendship” has changed on numerous occasions; the United States is no longer bombing the eastern provinces of Cambodia, for instance.

Now coming to my own conclusion, what is apparent is that Sim Vireak’s piece wasn’t actually the “response” to mine that it claimed to be. Almost never does he try to answer any of my charges directly.

I suggested some very specific issues that Phnom Penh may want to consider in order to improve its relations with the new, incoming US administration – none of which Sim Vireak considers. For the most part, he speaks in generalities and clichés, and when he does attempt to challenge me, he massively distorts what I write.

His was neither a response from an academic nor an attempt to discuss or further the debate about policy issues. It was a defense from a government official (an “excellency,” no less) writing to cover his own back and make himself appear loyal to those higher up than him.

David Hutt is a political journalist based between the Czech Republic and Britain. Between 2014 and 2019, he was based in Cambodia, covering Southeast Asian affairs. He is Southeast Asia columnist for The Diplomat and a regular contributor to Asia Times, including the column Free Thoughts. He reports on European political affairs and Europe-Asian relations. Follow him on Twitter @davidhuttjourno.