History, Hun Sen, and Ukraine

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, setting off a wave of Western-led sanctions, leaders in Washington and Brussels have struggled to secure support from Asian partners. Japan has emerged as the most stalwart partner in this effort, with Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan also demonstrating resolve. But India, citing long-standing ties with Russia, has refused to join in, instead maintaining its close ties with Moscow. And Vietnam, one of the United States’ most important partners in Southeast Asia, has refused too, going as far as to abstain from UN votes critical of Russia. Most other countries in the region have remained neutral.

One might expect Cambodia to follow Vietnam’s lead or at least remain neutral because of Phnom Penh’s own historical ties to Moscow, and Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen’s aversion to criticizing other countries’ human rights records—as this might allow others to criticize his government, too. But Hun Sen is full of surprises.

On March 2, Cambodia voted in favor of a UN General Assembly resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, on which Laos and Vietnam abstained. And when Hun Sen then met with Japanese prime minister Fumio Kishida two weeks later, the pair issued a joint statement in which they obliquely criticized Russia’s aggression in Ukraine—not actually naming Russia, but calling for “an immediate stop of the use of force and the withdrawal of the military forces from the territory of Ukraine.” This statement was stronger than expected, given that Chinese president Xi Jinping had called Hun Sen two days prior, pushing Cambodia to “hold a balanced and fair position on the Ukraine situation.” Yet Hun Sen nonetheless agreed to stronger language on Ukraine than Indian prime minister Narendra Modi did in his own March meeting with Kishida.

It appeared, then, that Hun Sen was at least sympathetic to Ukraine, even if he wanted to avoid antagonizing Russia and China, his geopolitical patron, for strategic reasons. But soon after, the rhetorical dam began to break, with political considerations giving way to Hun Sen’s own personal beliefs—as they often do with the prime minister, who is known for his off-the-cuff speeches.

On March 22, he called Russia’s actions an “invasion” for the first time, asking “who will help us in case we are attacked in [the] future” if Cambodia does not oppose the Russian attack on Ukraine. “That’s why we need to uphold certain principles,” he said, adding that while one unnamed country—probably China or Russia—had lobbied Cambodia to abstain at the United Nations, he rejected the suggestion.

Just about a week later, at a hospital inauguration ceremony on March 28, the prime minister went even further.

“I still stand in solidarity with Ukrainian people against the invasion,” he said, calling the “act of aggression . . . unacceptable to Cambodia.” He then invoked Cambodia’s own history of foreign interference—like the 1970 U.S. military incursion into and Vietnam’s 1980s occupation of the country—to make clear his opposition to Russia’s violence in Ukraine. “Cambodia’s independence and sovereignty were once invaded. So, Cambodia pledges to stand against any invasions,” he declared. And while he called Russia a “friend,” saying, “we’ve had a relationship [with them] since the 1950s,” he confirmed that “this will change as it has invaded Ukraine.”

Hun Sen’s approach to the Ukraine crisis may seem perplexing. Indeed, criticizing Russia so aggressively is probably not the wisest strategic move for him, given that Phnom Penh is increasingly reliant on Beijing (which opposes such condemnation) and has benefited from its ties with Moscow for years. The Russian ambassador to Cambodia tried to emphasize this latter point in late March, saying that Moscow “assisted Phnom Penh in the most difficult period in its history,” seemingly alluding to Russian support for Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge.

Clearly, Hun Sen’s approach is not one likely to win him friends in Moscow and Beijing. His willingness to condemn Russia for what look like emotional reasons—his own memories of war and foreign occupation—is instead a reminder that his one-man regime tends toward unpredictability. This is why he cozies up to China and vocally criticizes the United States while simultaneously seeking approbation from the Americans, as indicated by Cambodia’s insistence on a U.S.-ASEAN special summit in Washington, D.C. Hun Sen wants the Oval Office meeting he has long been denied (largely on human rights grounds).

Hun Sen’s approach to the Ukraine crisis, then, is a timely reminder that in Cambodia, policymaking is not by consensus, nor by a host of personalities—but by one personality, and by him alone.

Charles Dunst is an adjunct fellow (non-resident) with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Charles Dunst

Charles Dunst

Former Adjunct Fellow (Non-resident), Southeast Asia Program