Cambodian Defense Minister Tea Banh has close ties with China. Photo: Facebook

How did Tea Banh receive a Covid-19 vaccination in late January? On February 10, the Cambodian defense minister admitted he had been vaccinated 20 days earlier, which puts the date of his inoculation on January 20 or 21.

This has raised eyebrows since the first tranche of donated Chinese Sinopharm vaccines only arrived in Cambodia on February 7, weeks after Tea Banh’s apparent inoculation. And Cambodia’s Ministry of Health only approved the Sinopharm vaccine on February 4.

It also remains unclear whether other senior officials, including the all-powerful and possibly not all-seeing Prime Minister Hun Sen, knew about it.

Since January 17, Hun Sen had publicly said that he would be the first person to be vaccinated once the delivery from China was made, a way of showing that the jab was safe.

Prime Minister Hun Sen (C) at a ceremony for the handover of Sinopharm vaccine at Phnom Penh International Airport on February 7. Photo: Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP

Speaking at a ceremony on January 22, with Tea Banh sitting next to him, Hun Sen vowed, “The first dose of Covid-19 vaccine will be administered to me at Calmette Hospital, and after that I will hold a press conference there,” referring to a state-run hospital in Phnom Penh.

He then pointed to Tea Banh and said he hoped the minister would receive it alongside him, to which the minister nodded.

Hun Sen kept up this line as late as February 4. That day, after announcing the Sinopharm vaccines would be delivered soon, he wrote on his Facebook page again that he would be the first person to receive the jab when the campaign began on February 10. And, he said, Tea Banh would be part of the entourage to also be vaccinated on the same day. 

In a Facebook post on February 5, however, Hun Sen noted that “the vaccination process will officially begin at Calmette Hospital [on February 10], and I will get the first shot, followed by other senior officials except Samdech Pichey Sena Tea Banh, who has already been vaccinated”, referring to the minister by his numerous honorifics.

Cambodian soldiers check in for vaccinations on February 10. The Defense Ministry says military forces are front-line workers. Photo: Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP

This was the first time Hun Sen admitted that the defense minister had received a dose.

However, later on February 5, Hun Sen said he wouldn’t be vaccinated because on the advice of the Chinese embassy in Phnom Penh the Sinopharm jab should only be given to people between 18 and 59.

Hun Sen is 68, yet Tea Banh is 75. Cambodian officials above the age of 60 have generally not received the Chinese-made vaccine. This has raised questions about which vaccine Tea Banh actually received.

Rumor suggests it may not have been the Sinopharm vaccine, possibly one reason why the government would want to hush this up, since Cambodia has not yet officially received non-Chinese inoculations. This cannot be proven.

On January 15, five days before Tea Banh reportedly received his jab, Hun Sen announced that Cambodia would accept vaccines from China, when previously he had said his government would only accept those approved by the WHO, which doesn’t include the Sinopharm jab.

All this meant that Hun Sen’s eldest son, the military chief Hun Manet, officially became the first Cambodian to be vaccinated with the Sinopharm jab as the campaign got underway under February 10.

Armed Forces deputy commander-in-chief Hun Manet receives the Sinopharm vaccine on February 10. Photo: Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP

Quoted in the Khmer-language media, Tea Banh has intimated that Hun Sen allowed him to take the vaccination, although the prime minister’s comments up to February 5 would suggest he either didn’t know or wasn’t revealing this information publicly.

One possible explanation for his early vaccination was Tea Banh’s state visit to Turkey, a six-day tour for which he left on January 24, yet that doesn’t explain why it wasn’t publicly admitted until early February. 

Tea Banh, who has been defense minister for decades and a deputy prime minister since 2004, has played a leading role in Cambodia’s vaccination procurement measures, including liaising with Moscow for possible delivery of its Sputnik V vaccine.

This has seemingly given him much say over how the vaccines are distributed. Half of the first tranche of 600,000 vaccines donated by China in February have been squirreled away by his defense ministry to be used by military personnel, as the ministry says they are front-line workers. 

Since February 20, Cambodia has seen its worst outbreak of Covid-19 infections since the pandemic began, forcing major restrictions throughout the country.

On February 26, a Chinese editor-in-chief of a local newspaper was deported from Cambodia for reporting on accusations that Calmette hospital in Phnom Penh was illicitly selling vaccinations for US$140 a pop. This accusation appears to be incorrect and was probably conjured by Chinese scammers.

It is thought that Tea Banh, as well as his family members and personal staff, received the jab from Chinese medical staff at Phnom Penh’s military-run Preah Ket Mealea Hospital on January 20.

The military hospital, which falls under the purview of Tea Banh’s Defense Ministry not the Ministry of Health, also has a large contingent of Chinese military doctors and it is where the first delivery of the vaccines, which arrived on February 10, were stored.

Cambodia's Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Tea Banh (2nd L) shakes hands with a Chinese army advisor during a graduation ceremony at Army Institute in Kampong Speu province March 12, 2015. When Defence Minister Tea Banh addressed graduates last month at Cambodia's prestigious Army Institute, he directed his thanks to the guests who made it all possible: a group of crisply dressed officers from China's People's Liberation Army (PLA). Military aid, alongside arms sales and billions of dollars of investment, have strengthened China's ties with Cambodia, and analysts see it as part of a push to extend regional influence, including in the disputed South China Sea. Picture taken March 12, 2015. REUTERS/Samrang PringREUTERS/Samrang Pring - RTR4VUK6
Defence Minister Tea Banh (2nd L) shakes hands with a Chinese army advisor during a graduation ceremony at the Army Institute in Kampong Speu province, March 12, 2015. Photo: Agencies

On February 3, two days before Hun Sen admitted that Tea Banh had received the vaccination, the defense minister attended a ceremony at the Preah Ket Mealea Hospital where a team of Chinese vaccine specialists was teaching their Cambodian counterparts how to administer the jabs.

The event was also attended by the Chinese ambassador, Wang Wentian, as was Health Minister Mam Bun Heng, 70, who is not yet thought to have yet received a vaccination.

Most puzzling, the Phnom Penh Post also reported Tea Banh as saying on February 10, “Some of my family members were also vaccinated. My son actually took the vaccine before me. At the time, we had only a small quantity of the vaccine in the country. After my son was vaccinated, nothing bad happened to him so he encouraged me to take it as well.”

It isn’t clear which of his two sons he was referring to, but most probably Tea Seiha, who became Siem Reap province’s governor in 2018 as well as being a high-ranking military official.

Tea Banh has generally been rather cryptic about this whole affair, not mentioning names of others, including his entourage, who were vaccinated at the same time as him. The Health Ministry has also refused to answer questions about this, directing reporters to the Defense Ministry, which is equally schtum.

There is no official account of Tea Banh visiting the Preah Ket Mealea Hospital on January 20, although Neang Phat, a secretary of state at the Defence Ministry, had to stand in for him that day when the ministry held a ceremony for the signing of an MOU with a Chinese firm. 

On January 18, two days before Tea Banh reportedly received the jab, five Chinese medical staff at the Preah Ket Mealea Hospital were awarded the “Peace Knight Medal” by the Defense Ministry.

According to the Facebook page of Tea Seiha, he was in Phnom Penh on January 18 for a conference on the SEA Games which Cambodia will host in 2023. Tea Seiha’s Facebook posts put him back in Siem Reap province by January 21.

Preah Ket Mealea Hospital has a spotty history. In 2014, the hospital’s director, Lieutenant General Ly Sovan, and its deputy director, Major General Keo Davuth, were arrested on allegations of conducting an organ-trafficking ring. Also arrested in this bust were a number of Chinese doctors.

It was alleged at the time that they were illicitly selling kidney transplants, reportedly for up to $40,000.

However, the Defense Ministry quickly wrote this off as a “training program” and no charges were brought against the accused. Ly Sovan, indeed, remains the hospital’s director.

It is possible that Tea Banh pulled in favors to have himself, his family and his staff vaccinated before anyone else in the country.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen wears a face mask at Phnom Penh International Airport, May 11, 2020. Photo: Tang Chhin Sothy

It may also have been a gift to Tea Banh by the Chinese military, which has a close relationship with his ministry. It is believed that some Chinese diplomatic and military personnel in Cambodia have been inoculated from their own deliveries of vaccines.

Either Hun Sen knew about all of this before February 5 and for some reason felt the need to hide this information from the public, possibly to protect his long-time ally from scrutiny.

Or the prime minister didn’t know, which raises questions about his authority over his cabinet and the loyalty of his defense minister.