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Hun Sen emerges to back $1.7 billion Cambodian canal project

Despite objections by Vietnam, the former prime minister says no room for negotiations
Hun Sen (right), Cambodia’s president of the Senate, shakes hands with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi during a meeting at the Senate building in Phnom Penh on April 22. Cambodia is building the Funan Techo canal project with Chinese help.

Hun Sen (right), Cambodia’s president of the Senate, shakes hands with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi during a meeting at the Senate building in Phnom Penh on April 22. Cambodia is building the Funan Techo canal project with Chinese help. (Photo: AFP)

 

Published: April 30, 2024 07:05 AM GMT
Updated: April 30, 2024 09:30 AM GMT

Former prime minister Hun Sen has emerged from the sidelines to assert Cambodian interests over international issues, including the construction of a controversial canal that will divert water from the Mekong River to Kep on the south coast, near the Vietnamese border.

Hun Sen went on a vintage offensive, saying there was no room for negotiations over the US$1.7-billion Funan Techo canal which is expected to traverse 180 kilometers; but critics say it will drain 50 percent of the water flow from Vietnam’s southern regions in the Mekong Delta.

“There would be no further negotiation regarding the digging of the Funan Techo canal," he told a group of business leaders. “Don’t call Cambodia to negotiate.”

Hun Manet, who took over from his father last August, said he expected to sign agreements when he visits China in October, adding the canal work would begin this year “or, at the latest, in 2025” and will take three years to complete.

Business groups in Cambodia – local and foreign – have long complained that their exports face extravagant costs and lengthy delays because they are forced to travel down the Mekong River and into Vietnam where they are essentially re-exported and face additional costs.

As one Western business owner put it: “Vietnamese exports to Japan take eight days but from Cambodia, it is three weeks, which makes no sense and to be frank the Vietnamese look after the Vietnamese first and Cambodian exports suffer as a result.”

It was a point picked up by Hun Sen, who said the “canal provides direct access to the sea without the need to pass through other countries. The canal project is not only expanding in the southwest but throughout the entire country.”

“In the past, we were compelled to use Vietnam's ports for any goods requiring international transit, but this incurred costs,” he said.

“This development means that agricultural products from the provinces can be transported by the canal directly to the sea. We no longer need to pay the extra fees that we have been paying to Vietnam.”

Le Anh Tuan, a senior lecturer at the College of Environment and Natural Resources and the Research Institute for Climate Change at Can Tho University, raised concerns that the canal will take water from the Hau River and harm the Mekong Delta.

The Mekong Delta in southern Vietnam is home to more than 17.4 million people and accounts for half the country's rice production, 65 percent of aquaculture, and 17 percent of the GDP of the communist nation.

“We will convey our opinions to the International Mekong River Commission and Cambodia so that the project can soon have a cross-border environmental impact assessment,” said Nguyen Thi Thu Linh, head of the standing office of the Vietnam Mekong Committee.

Hun Sen was elected president of the senate in February which also means he will be acting head of state when Cambodia’s monarch, King Norodom Sihamoni, is out of the country.

State media has insisted that as Senate president Hun Sen is entitled to play a robust role in international affairs.

That includes the Mekong River and natural water flows where Cambodia, a downstream country, has suffered from low water levels and fish stocks blamed on dams across the river’s mainstream in Laos and China and across tributaries in Vietnam.

But Hun Sen said he was forced to speak about the canal because it was approved last year under his premiership.

“It's essential to understand and prioritize Cambodia's interests, but what's even more critical is the support and understanding of the Cambodian people in making the Funan Techo canal project a national endeavor," he said.

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