Hun Sen and Duterte: strongmen plan crackdown on regional crime

By: Paul Millar - Posted on: December 13, 2016 | Cambodia

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, whose war on drugs has claimed almost 6,000 lives since July, touches down in Phnom Penh today

A Cambodian worker decorates portraits of Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte (L) and Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni (R), on a street near the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
A Cambodian worker decorates portraits of Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte (L) and Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni (R), on a street near the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 12 December 2016. Photo: EPA/MAK REMISSA

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is set to touch down in Cambodia’s capital of Phnom Penh this evening in the firebrand leader’s first visit to the Kingdom.

Duterte will have a royal audience with King Norodom Sihamoni before meeting with Prime Minister Hun Sen to sign two memoranda of understanding on sports cooperation and transnational crime.

The president, popularly dubbed “the Punisher” for his role presiding over the Philippines’ brutal campaign of extrajudicial killings against those suspected to be involved in drug crime, was heralded by a surreal demonstration in front of the Royal Palace on Monday morning as five unidentified Filipinos briefly re-enacted an infamous photo of a woman cradling the corpse of her husband gunned down in Duterte’s war on drugs.

The protesters, who left immediately after local media photographed their display, handed out a brief statement condemning the president’s campaign, citing Philippine police statistics stating that almost 6,000 people had been killed since Duterte’s election.

“Most of the dead come from the country’s poor on suspicion of being drug addicts or drug pushers,” it read. “Many of them voluntarily surrendered, only to be arrested and killed in alleged shoot-outs with the police. Some of those killed have been proven innocent.”

Sophal Ear, associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College in the US and author of Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy, said he hoped the Cambodian government would not follow the Philippines’ hardline approach to criminal activity in an effort to boost its popularity.

“Neither Cambodia nor the Philippines have the death penalty, but clearly, neither should be engaged in extrajudicial killings,” he told Southeast Asia Globe. “No-one should be made a scapegoat for a bigger societal problem. People have human rights and due process; innocent until proven guilty.”

The visit may also signal a crucial step forward in the South China Sea conflict that has seen both countries in opposition since Cambodia used its position as chair of the 2012 Asean summit to block a joint statement responding to China’s expansion into the disputed territory. Cambodia repeated its role in the gridlock four years later by blocking any mention of a Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling in the Philippines’ favour.

“Duterte’s visit signals rapprochement between the Philippines and Cambodia, which had been at odds on the South China Sea under President Benigno Aquino,” Ear said. “It continues the Philippines’ embrace of China and suggests that the friend of your friend is also your friend. Any way to get into the good graces of China, I suppose.”