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The rescue of ‘Westerdam’ crew and passengers recalls 1970s

Eng Kokthay / No Comments Share:
Relieved passengers disembark from the ‘Westerdam’ at Sihanoukville after days at sea. KT/Chor Sokunthea

The excessive fear around Novel Coronavirus has turned a glamorous vista class Westerdam into a pariah vessel sailing aimlessly between ports searching for entry. She was denied permission to enter Hong Kong, the Phillipines, Taiwan, the US overseas territory of Guam, Japan and Thailand despite having no confirmed cases of infection since departure at the time. However, an 83-year-old female passenger who flew on to Malaysia was diagnosed with the disease upon arrival at Kuala Lumpur, imposing quarantine strictures on other passengers.

The brave action of Cambodian Prime Minster Hun Sen to allow the Westerdam with its 2,257 passengers and crew to dock at Sihanoukville has won commendation across the world,  including the Western diplomatic community in Phnom Penh who have mostly been critical of Cambodia’s handling of domestic issues.

On Wednesday, the US ambassador to Cambodia tweeted, “Cambodia authorities have authorised Westerdam, with US citizens among the passengers, to dock at Sihanoukville. We greatly appreciate Cambodian assistance.” The World Health Organization director-general said, “My sincere thanks to the government and Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia for clearing the way for Westerdam cruise ship to dock at Sihanoukville. This is a welcome act of solidarity at a time when the world has a window of opportunity to stop COVID-19 and avoid stigma and fear.”

The European delegation to Cambodia also joined in with praise, “We thank Cambodian authorities for authorising the docking of the Westerdam and to express sympathy to the passengers and crew members of the ship, hoping they will soon be safely repatriated.”

This message came a day after the European Commission recommended a tariff on 20 percent of Cambodian imports under the Everything but Arms (EBA) trade deal. Despite that, Cambodia still took action to save 260 European passengers from 20 European countries aboard the ship. Many passengers went to social media to thank Cambodia. Thailand has since followed suit with permission for Seabourn Ovation and Quantum of the Seas with 4,000 passengers and crews to dock at Phuket. Cambodian action has clearly inspired other nations to act in this time of epidemic fear. After achieving peace and consistent economic growth over the past 20 years, Cambodia has increasingly become a small country with a humanitarian priority. There are much richer Asian countries that have no intention to seek foreign aid. Since 2006, Cambodia has sent 6,556 peacekeeping forces along with expert demining teams to war-torn countries across the globe.

Relieved passengers disembark from the ‘Westerdam’ at Sihanoukville after days at sea. KT/Chor Sokunthea

Cambodia’s kindheartedness has come not only from the country’s generosity but also from her history as victims of war and genocide. After a military coup by Marshal Lon Nol in March 1970, Cambodia was ravaged by civil war that began to displace millions of people from their homelands. When the Khmer Rouge became victorious, they committed widespread and systematic killings of their own people. Many people began to escape overland and by sea. Cambodian people of many ethnic origins including Khmer, Vietnamese, Cham and Chinese left on small fishing boats via Koh Kong, Sihanoukville and smaller ports from the Vietnamese coasts.

Many boats sank. Others got lost in the Gulf of Thailand and the South China Sea. A few were attacked by pirates who robbed, raped and killed passengers. Some survivors were picked up by patrolling humanitarian ships.

A Cambodian survivor in New Zealand recalled: “We were almost dead from lack of food and water after several weeks drifting at sea because our boat was broken. Then a New Zealand patrol boat picked us up.”

The survivor and her fellow refugees were relocated to New Zealand. Sear Rithy who is a successful entrepreneur in Cambodia, was also a boat refugee. After eight months at sea, his boat drifted towards northern Malaysia where it was found and he was placed in a refugee camp set up near Kota Bharu in the state of Kelantan.

He said: “A few passengers wanted so much to disembark that they jumped into the water too soon upon seeing land that they drowned. They had no energy to swim.” A fellow Khmer Norwegian whom I met in Kristiansand in Norway also had a similar story.

Cambodia is a nation with a big heart despite our small size. It has some issues, just like other countries, but it is not a country of indecision in the face of humanitarian crisis. This is what we learn from history as well. As the world debated in 1977 and 1978 on the existence of mass killings and genocide inside Cambodia, no action was taken. Every day 2,000 people died from starvation, forced labour, disease and execution. Cambodia has taken quick action to save the passengers on the Westerdam so that they can travel home and hopefully eventually be reunited with their loved ones.


Eng Kokthay, director of Cambodian Institute for Peace and Development


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