• Hun Sen has ruled Cambodia for 35 years
  • China has poured billions of dollars into Cambodian infrastructure projects
  • Hun Sen has been criticized for not repatriating Cambodian students from Wuhan

The Prime Minister of Cambodia Hun Sen will not be able to meet with Cambodian students in the coronavirus-stricken city of Wuhan, China, after Beijing authorities declined to approve such a visit.

Cambodia’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong said that China could not organize the trip “because China is busy fighting the spread of this virus, therefore, the Chinese side in Wuhan city, Hubei province, doesn’t have enough time to provide good hospitality to [Hun Sen].”

Kuong also said China offered Hun Sen the opportunity to visit Beijing instead but that the prime minister chose to fly back to Cambodia.

Earlier on Tuesday, Hun Sen said he wanted to visit Cambodian students Wuhan to offer them his support after the Phnom Penh government was criticized last week for not repatriating them.

Hun Sen, a close ally of Beijing, said he would fly to Wuhan on Wednesday from South Korea, where he is presently attending a summit.

"Why would Hun Sen not dare go to Wuhan to visit Cambodian students studying [there],” he said in Seoul.

On Facebook, Hun Sen wrote that his visit to Wuhan was designed “to show [the students] warmth and to make sure they are not scared of the new type of infectious coronavirus.”

Thus far, more than 20,000 people in China have been infected with the virus while more than 400 have been killed. Several foreign countries have airlifted their citizens from Wuhan and otherwise cut or reduced transportation links with China.

Last week, Hun Sen came under severe criticism after he claimed the coronavirus was under control and that he would not evacuate Cambodian citizens stranded in China. Cambodia has also continued airplane service to and from China.

The prime minister also warned that China might no longer offer scholarships to Cambodian youth if they were flown out of Wuhan.

Cambodians "who are currently working or studying in China, including those in Wuhan, have to remain there and join the Chinese people to fight this disease. Don't run away from the Chinese people during this difficult time," he said at the time. "A friend in need is a friend indeed, as the old Cambodian saying goes."

At a press conference last Thursday, Hun Sen said: "I think China doesn't need our money to help them in China. We only have to cooperate with the Chinese embassy in Cambodia and treat Chinese investors, Chinese special economic zones, Chinese citizens, Chinese tourists who are working in or visiting Cambodia well. I think this is already our contribution: Don't discriminate against Chinese people."

There are reportedly 23 Cambodian students in Wuhan and all have thus far avoided virus infection, said Nop Veasna, president of the Association of Cambodian Students in China.

"I was initially very scared but over time I realized that being worried was not helpful, so I eventually got used to the new normal," said Keat Pocheang, another Cambodian student in Wuhan.

Pen Baraing, one of the Cambodian students stranded in Wuhan, said he did not think Hun Sen’s trip was even necessary.

“I don’t think it is a good time to come. The trip could complicate things for the Wuhan administration as they would have to do a lot of work to ensure the safety of the delegation,” he said.

He added that Cambodian students are scattered across China in six locations.

“We are all in good health and are being cared for by the Cambodian Embassy in Beijing, the Student Association in China,” he added.

On Tuesday, the Cambodian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Chinese officials were closely monitoring the Cambodian students in Wuhan.

“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Cambodian embassy and consulates in China are in direct contact with the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs to keep abreast of any development regarding the well being of Cambodians in China, especially the students in Wuhan,” the ministry stated.

“The students are fine. They enjoy good health and are in high spirits and communicating regularly with the embassy,” added Kuong

The Cambodian Ministry of Health confirmed Monday its first case of virus infection -- a Chinese man from Wuhan who visited the coastal city of Sihanoukville.

China wields tremendous economic clout in Cambodia – accounting for some 70% of Cambodia's foreign direct investment, a major growth driver in recent years.

Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia for 35 years, dismissed the notion that China has too much power and influence over his country, despite the billions of dollars Beijing has poured into its infrastructure and tourism projects.

Last year, Hun Sen countered that while the Chinese have invested heavily in Cambodia, their loans are low interest, low-risk, long-term and do not pose a threat to national independence.

“I’ve heard so many people saying that Cambodia may fall into China’s debt trap,” Hun Sen said. “For Cambodia, we maintain our sovereignty in borrowing, we borrowed according to the projects we need, and China respects our decision.”

Hun Sen also asserted that Cambodia’s overall debt volumes remained low, at 21.5% of gross domestic product. “Some countries owe up to 200%, 300% or 500% of their GDP,” he added.