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Big-hearted gesture from country with smaller resources

Taing Rinith / Khmer Times Share:
General Tea Banh speaks to the press at the Phnom Penh International Airport before leaving for Laos on a trip to donate 2.1 million masks and medical equipment. KT/Khem Sovannara

Minister of Defence General Tea Banh, on behalf of the Cambodian government, delivered on Monday a massive donation of medical supplies to Laos to help the country combat COVID-19.

According to the Ministry of Health, the donation comprised of over two million face masks along with 20,000 personal protective equipment items, 20,000 N95 masks, 500 temperature checking devices, 20,000 face shields, 20 ventilator machines, 20 patient monitors, 500 packs of Chloramine B Powder, 1,000 sets of plastic safety boots and 2,000 units of hand sanitiser.

The donation was made after Laos Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith on Saturday called Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has been in quarantine since the “November 3 incident”, to ask about his and his wife’s health.

In a statement, Sisoulith expressed his “profound gratitude and sincere thanks” for this invaluable support from the Cambodian government and people of Cambodia during this difficult time.

Passengers getting off the Holland America MS Westerdam in Sihanoukville. KT/Chor Sokunthea

Yet, in the meantime, the donation also drew a barrage of criticism from some Cambodian people, who argued that Cambodia should reserve those medical supplies for its citizens.

“Your people are still poor! Why did you give those to people in a foreign country?” a Cambodian Facebook user posted on the social media site.

“What a foolish act! Our GDP is even smaller than that of Laos,” said another.

However, when viewed from a number of perspectives, one can see that the donation is a much-needed act of generosity amid the ongoing pandemic, which is one of the worst socio-economic calamities the world has ever seen, as well as a great gesture for international relations.

In his statement, Gen Banh mentioned the close historical ties between the two Southeast Asian countries, especially as two nations that “fought shoulder to shoulder against colonialism and imperialism to gain our respective independence, national sovereignty, freedom and self-determination.”

This is supported by Sambo Manara, a prominent Cambodian historian, who added that the donation could even make Cambodia and Laos improve their relationship further.

“Last year, Cambodia and Laos saw tension along the border, which has been a source of occasional disputes and differences between them,” he said. “This donation, even without a request from Laos, could be a historic chance for the two countries to find ground to bring their relationship to another level.”

Manara said that through the donation, the Cambodian government is showing to the world the famous generosity and friendliness of its people as a Buddhist nation.

“In fact, I believe that it is Buddhism itself that ties Cambodia and Laos more than any other aspect,” Manara added. “Also, just after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, we knew what real hardship felt like, and we don’t want any nation to suffer from a similar experience.”

Chheang Vannarith, president of Asian Vision Institute, said the donation of medical supplies made by Cambodia to Laos is a good model of the mutual help concept upon which the Association of Southeast Asian Nations is built, especially given the different political systems and ideologies between the Asean member states.

“In Asian culture, one cannot ignore a neighbour in need of help, no matter how poor or lacking we are,” he said. “With such help, moreover, Cambodia is showing that it is fulfilling its role as a member of the Asean family. We have to admit that some countries help others only when they are asked, but Cambodia has never been asked.”

Cambodia, Vannarith added, is no stranger to acts of generosity. One example is when it stepped in to help passengers and crew aboard the Holland America MS Westerdam, which was unable to dock after being turned away by multiple ports over the fears that the coronavirus may have spread onboard.

The ship finally received authorisation from the Cambodian government to dock at Sihanoukville port on February 13, and upon reaching the mainland, the first passengers disembarked on Valentine’s Day and were greeted personally by Mr Hun Sen.

Cambodian peacekeepers clear landmines in Lebanon. Facebook

The decision placed an international spotlight on the Kingdom, which earned the nickname “A Small Country with a Big Heart” from WHO.

“Humanitarian gestures, such as the commitment to UN peacekeeping operations even during the time of the pandemic, is a very good policy in international relations, while Cambodia is doing everything within its capacity,” said Vannarith.

Meanwhile, Pa Chanroeun, president of the Cambodian Institute for Democracy, told Khmer Times that while helping Laos amid the COVID-19 pandemic is a good diplomatic gesture, Cambodia is also helping itself.

“Helping Laos, a neighbouring country, to curb the spread of COVID-19 also means that Cambodia is preventing imported cases from Laos into the country,” he said.

However, Chanroeun said that before it helps others, Cambodia should make sure that its people have the resources and materials to protect themselves from infection.

“Cambodia had been doing so well until the “November 3 incident”, and we are still not sure about the final test results of the officials and people who were in contact with Péter Szijjártó, the Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade,” he added. “Therefore, we are not sure about what will happen in the future.”

Nevertheless, government spokesman Phay Siphan said that the Kingdom’s donation to Laos does not affect its capacity to combat COVID-19.

“We prioritise the fight against COVID-19 which is now a very important goal established by Asean,” he said. “The donation was from our surplus, and thus does not have any impact on our country’s reserve for the prevention of the pandemic.”

He added that Laos has always been a good development partner with Cambodia, especially in the field of electricity.

“Both countries have been suffering from both the COVID-19 crisis and the recent flood disaster, but we know who our real friends are during times of emergency,” Siphan added.

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