Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen on Thursday said he plans to ask China for an aid package to build a road along his country’s border with Thailand, despite concerns over the lack of transparency associated with previous donations provided by Beijing.
Speaking at the opening of a newly built road in the capital Phnom Penh, which was also paid for with Chinese money, Hun Sen said the proposed project would link a network of existing highways from the southern province of Sihanoukville, through Koh Kong and Pursat provinces, to the border in Battambang province’s Samlout district.
“We have already connected those roads,” he said at the groundbreaking ceremony he presided over Thursday along with Chinese Ambassador Xiong Bo for a 40-kilometer (25-mile) section of National Road No. 6, linking the capital to the central province of Kampong Cham.
“We are sending a proposal to build a new road which will connect them with our neighboring countries.”
Hun Sen praised China as Cambodia’s top donor and said he planned to ask for more cash during a planned visit to the country in May, when he will attend a summit for the proposed “One Belt, One Road” initiative that could see China invest billions of U.S. dollars in infrastructure projects across Asia, Africa and Europe.
While the prime minister did not provide details on the cost of the proposed border road project, he said Cambodia requires U.S. $500-700 million to develop infrastructure across the country, including roads and bridges, irrigation systems, the electricity grid, and education and health care systems.
Hun Sen’s announcement came days after he dismissed criticism over his government’s use of funds to construct a new soccer stadium in Phnom Penh, saying the money was donated by China and that the project was key to improving the lives of Cambodians.
The prime minister waived off claims that the estimated 1 billion yuan (U.S. $157 million) required to build the Morodok Techo National Sport Complex would be better spent on infrastructure, such as roads and bridges.
China is Cambodia’s largest foreign donor, but many aid agreements between the two nations lack transparency, raising questions about whether Beijing is trying to buy influence in the country and how the money is being spent.
According to data compiled by Cambodia’s government, Beijing has provided Phnom Penh with nearly U.S. $3 billion in loans for 47 development projects and U.S. $180 million in grants for another 10 since 2002.
However, little information has been made publicly available about the largest of the 10 grants—the 1 billion-yuan agreement for the Morodok Techo stadium ahead of Cambodia’s turn as host of the Southeast Asia Games (SEA Games) in 2023.
In the meantime, China continues to funnel money into Cambodia. During Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Cambodia in October 2016, Beijing forgave a U.S. $90 million debt Phnom Penh incurred a year earlier and loaned Hun Sen’s government another U.S. $60 million.
In response to Hun Sen’s announcement, Muong Sony, the president of the Khmer Student Intelligent League Association, told RFA’s Khmer Service that the government should also develop a road along Cambodia’s border with Vietnam in order to protect the country from “encroachment.”
Cambodians along the border with Vietnam are also severely lacking adequate infrastructure for health care, irrigation and agriculture, he added.
The border issue has been a potent political issue for both the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), as the CNRP has criticized Hun Sen for allegedly giving territory to Vietnam, and Hun Sen has retaliated by jailing politicians who have attacked him on the issue.
Vietnam and Cambodia have had a fraught relationship for centuries, but the animosity with Hun Sen dates from the 1979-89 Vietnamese occupation that ended the murderous rule of the Khmer Rouge.
The two countries have been working to complete demarcation of the border for more than two decades.
Reported by Savi Korn for RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Sarada Taing. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.