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Clarity needed as trust deficit widens between Cambodia and Asean ally over ‘MS Westerdam’

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Passengers disembarking from the ‘MS Westerdam’ when it was docked in Sihanoukville. KT/Chor Sokunthea

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen last week expressed his disappointment with Malaysia over the irregularity of testing the 83-years old US passenger of the MS Westerdam cruise ship.

After the women was tested positive for Covid-19, all passengers and crew members were banned from transiting in some countries in Southeast Asia. The destination countries also applied 14-days quarantine policy on them. The repatriation process was delayed for a week.

Some news outlets and analysts predicted doom and gloom and that an outbreak of Covid-19 in Cambodia was now inevitable, if it had not happened already. The outlawed opposition leaders joined in the chorus of doomday preachers by accusing the Cambodian government for complacency and irresponsibility.

The reversal of findings after extensive treatment and testing over a 72-hour period of the said patient, an 83 year US woman which revealed to be negative laid moot the earlier test by the Malaysian health ministry which was significant, financially, politically and psychologically.

This was not only felt in Cambodia but across the world as nations scrambled to locate passengers who had returned home to instruct them to go into a 14-day self isolation mode while several of Cambodia’s Asean neighbours banned the entry of any of Westerdam’s passengers, even though the preliminary findings of the Malaysian health authority came into dispute the moment it was announced.

Mr Hun Sen also encouraged people to read the Facebook Post of Mr Jean-Francois Tain, the head of the Khmer service of Radio France International, which reads that, “Finally, it is proven that the American women passenger of the Westerdam cruise ship is free from the novel coronavirus,”.

On Feb 22, the Ministry of Health of Malaysia issued a press statement which confirmed that the US women was tested negative after two appraisals.

Prior to that, after the Feb 15 finding, both health ministers even spoke on the phone. So where, how and why did it go wrong? This has to be explained to mend broken diplomatic fences.

After the news on the 22nd, the destination countries started removing or loosening the quarantine requirements. By then most passengers had already returned home, thanks to other countries and airliners that took on a more humanitarian approach.

The bilateral relations between Cambodia and Malaysia have been at odds over several issues. In November last year, the ruling party of Malaysia hosted the leaders of the outlawed opposition party, who tried to provoke a people’s uprising in Cambodia.

This recent incident added more questions to the bilateral relationship. This trust deficit must be resolved in the quickest manner possible and language used must also be more diplomatic and cultured in nature as both the prime ministers of Malaysia and Cambodia have had built a decades-long tested and trusted relationship.

This, however, began to unravel with the nature of Malaysia’s current ruling government which comprises a number of parties which joined together to form a coalition. This was probably the reason why the November 2019 incident involving the entry of Sam Rainsy into Malaysia and his subsequent VIP treatment in certain quarters within the ruling government had to be appeased.

The two leaders, should have picked up the telephone and spoken to each other because they are no strangers to the styles of each other and what turned out to be a major storm in a tea cup could have been a mere ripple.

Malaysia, on its part, could have explained all the processes it did in its statement dated Feb 22 on Feb 15, at least the part referring to the treatment processes.

That was left vague and, when it did come, it came at a time when the world had concluded that the 83-year-old woman did not have COVID-19.

Exactly who is wrong and who is right is hard to conclude given the fact that Malaysia is alone while the United States’ Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and The Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC) have both put the Malaysian findings into disarray.

Clarity must be established and relations rebuilt, especially with news that former opposition firebrand Mu Sochua was reportedly allowed to enter Malaysia again on Saturday, surfacing yesterday.

Another storm in the teacup may just erupt yet again.

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