Hima the defanged lion (right) interacts with a pet dog through cage bars at Tamao zoo in Takeo province, Cambodia, before its controversial return home to Phnom Penh, on July 5, 2021. Photo: AFP / Tang Chhin Sothy

After videos circulated on social media, an 18-month-old lion cub living as a “pet” in a Phnom Penh villa, was seized on June 27 by the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center, run by both the government and Wildlife Alliance. The “owner” was fined the equivalent of US$30,000 by the Ministry of Agriculture.

Social media erupted in debate over the sins and virtues of raising a wild animal in a small urban garden. The story was then jumped on by international media, including the British Broadcasting Corporation and CNN, which typically only give ear to Cambodia in articles relating to the Khmer Rouge or mine-detecting rats.

There are so many reasons this should not have been as newsworthy as it was. It would seem a perfect tu quoque that people are so fond of nowadays: Why heap so much scorn on one case in Cambodia when there are an estimated 10,000 lions and big cats in homes across the United States? Western voices should look at that before one case in Phnom Penh, no? 

More to the point, it might also be questioned why so much ink has been spilled over the occupancy of a lion when Cambodia’s death toll from Covid-19 is rising; when issues like pandemic responses in prisons go unreported; when hospitals are running out of beds; when household debt is soaring; when the country’s relations with the United States are deteriorating even more. And then there’s Cambodia’s authoritarian state. 

All that, and the story ought to have ended there. Only it didn’t, because this Sunday the Cambodian prime minister, Hun Sen, intervened personally to order the lion to be returned to the owner, even taking the time to speak to Agriculture Minister Veng Sakhon before making his decision. 

I have long pointed out the problems of Hun Sen’s micromanagement style of leadership, in which he seemingly has (and has to have) an opinion on everything. The joys of being a dictator (or the head of a “personalistic authoritarian regime” in academic jargon). Just last month the Ministry of Public Works and Transport reportedly delayed giving the go-ahead to build a new bridge connecting the provinces of Kratie and Kampong Thom, an issue that one imagined the ministry could have dealt with by itself, until Hun Sen signed off on it. 

And, it must be remembered, Hun Sen had been quarantining for weeks and only left his seclusion last Saturday, the day before he intervened in the lion affair.

Speaking through his Facebook page, as he does, Hun Sen said that after discussions with his minister they “agreed to allow the owner to take back the animal, but he has to build a proper enclosure to ensure the safety of people inside home and the neighbors.” And he even replied to a comment by the owner, stating that “the lion is like your family member and it is a special case to return it to you to raise.” 

It has never been clear whether Hun Sen pens his own Facebook posts or they are written by Duong Dara, his aide and the manager of the Facebook page. However, clearly the prime minister was trying to appear responsive to the concerns of the public, which for days had been noisily debating this issue on Facebook. Indeed, Agriculture Minister Veng Sakhon described Hun Sen’s decision as “a sympathetic” one.

Hun Sen also said he had made the decision after tracking the social-media chatter, which presumably means somebody told him a lot of Cambodian “influencers” and wealthy celebrities were on the side of the owner. The deaths of more than 700 fellow Cambodians from Covid-19 couldn’t have hardened singer Sok Pisey’s emotions as she claimed “I cannot stop my tears!” over the animal being taken away from its owner. 

Hun Chea, the prime minister’s nephew and a military officer (and not a qualified veterinarian), claimed that the animal looked as though it was underfed and skinny in the Phnom Tamao zoo. This happens to be a zoo partly run by the government, so not a ringing endorsement of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.

However, as Voice of America reports, “Article 49 of the forestry law prohibits any activities involving vulnerable and endangered wildlife species including the possession, stock or maintenance by an individual or family as a private zoo.” And, in fact, the courts had specified this article when the lion was seized and the owner was  fined the equivalent of $30,000 by the Ministry of Agriculture. 

In other words, Hun Sen has in effect pardoned someone for a crime that only days before his Agriculture Ministry tried to prosecute. Small wonder neither the ministry nor the Wildlife Alliance has sought to comment on this matter, no doubt angry and embarrassed by the whole affair. 

It may or may not be inconsequential that the owner of the lion, named as Qi Xiao in reports, is a Chinese national, given the close relations between Hun Sen’s government with Beijing and Chinese businesspeople. For now, one can only speculate whether the owner pulled some strings to win the prime minister’s favor – or, rather, Hun Sen was trying to pull some strings with a Chinese businessman and his associates. 

It has been suggested that the lion’s owner has ties to the casino industry. “He does not have small connections but he has big connections,” someone has said. “If he has small connections, he would not dare to raise a lion like this.”

On the other hand, Hun Sen does like to involve himself in the pettiest of issues, especially when he can intervene to make himself appear a good guy. And, clearly, he thought this was one such occasion, warranting a discussion with a minister just a day after he left quarantine. 

Last December, I wrote a piece titled “Who cares about Kaavan?” about the preposterous events surrounding the eponymous elephant being brought to a Cambodian reserve from its Pakistani zoo. Not only did I detest being told to think of this as a heart-warming story, it featured the worst of Hollywood (Cher made herself center of attention in “rescuing” the animal) and the worst of my profession, with fluff-piece journalists ignorantly (and lazily) characterizing Cambodia as an environmental paradise, when it’s nothing of the sort. 

The Cambodian authorities naturally sought to aggrandize themselves on this jovial bandwagon in which the actual issue at the heart of the event, the treatment of wild animals, was lost entirely in the blitz of PR and credulity. 

The lion affair is not that analogous, for the simple reason that the issue is so straightforward: Cambodia’s law is unambiguous that a violation has taken place and, as per his wont, Hun Sen has intervened to overrule that law. Either that, or the Ministry of Agriculture doesn’t know its own laws. 

Perhaps this has been a welcomed distraction for some after more than a year and a half of a pandemic. Yet distractions aren’t what we need amid a crisis that could very well get much worse and which, one imagines, should really be holding the full attention of the government and media. 

After all, after having recorded only 366 Covid-19 cases last year, the infection rate in Cambodia has now soared upwards of 55,000. And to stretch a metaphor: Like raising a captive lion, pandemics have a way of biting you in the back later.

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.