Prime Minister Hun Sen justified spending about U.S.$500,000 of the national budget on domestically produced luxury watches as gifts for visiting ASEAN dignitaries, arguing they showcased Cambodia’s “scientific and technical progress.”
Critics countered that the money would have been better spent on helping Cambodia’s people.
Hun Sen commissioned a total of 25 tourbillon watches from Prince Group, Cambodia’s fastest growing conglomerate, as gifts to VIP attendees of the Association for Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, Summit in Phnom Penh last weekend.
Each cost about $20,000, he said during a press conference at the conclusion of the summits on Sunday.
The timepieces were meant to show the world what “Khmers can do,” he said.
“We want to show Cambodia’s ability to produce watches,” Hun Sen said, while raising one for the media to get a good look.
Luxury watch collection
A luxury watch aficionado himself, the Cambodian leader owns a collection of watches worth at least $13 million, an apparent discrepancy with his $2,500-a-month salary, according to his detractors.
He vowed to wear the commemorative watch to future ASEAN summit meetings and noted that some of the other ASEAN leaders were already wearing theirs.
“I’m sure my grandkids will demand this watch from me. But I will not give it to them because it is a souvenir of my 3rd ASEAN Chairmanship,” he said. Hun Sen has ruled Cambodia since 1985 and Cambodia has chaired the Southeast Asian bloc twice before, in 2002 and 2012.
The 70-year-old leader said he would likely not chair for a fourth time because of his advanced age.
The government should have given gifts that reflect Cambodia’s national identity, rather than wasting money on lavish trinkets, Ly Chandaravuth of the Mother Nature Cambodia environmentalist group told RFA’s Khmer Service.
“Many Cambodians are living under the poverty line,” he said. “So I think by showing off wealth and pride by giving these watches as souvenirs is not something that I should be proud of if I were the leader.”
“The real pride should be when our people are able to live in happiness with genuine peace—free from fear or from any social insecurity,” he said.
Cambodia’s minimum monthly wage is the equivalent of about $200 per month.
The expensive gifts were not necessary, especially when the government is underfunded, said Yong Kim Eng, president of the local People’s Center for Development and Peace NGO.
“Some of our local authorities always complain about lacking budget … to provide necessary services to their citizens,” said Yong Kim Eng.
“At the same time, some people living in rural areas flock to neighboring countries to become migrant workers due to their difficulties and suffering,” he said. “They become over indebted just to make ends meet.”
RFA was not able to contact government spokesperson Phay Siphan for comment as of Monday.
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