Staying true to his alleged love of luxury watches, Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen has unveiled new limited edition timepieces under the ASEAN brand to be gifted to the heads of delegations attending the bloc’s summit in Phnom Penh later this week.
“This watch is assembled entirely by Khmer technicians as part of our scientific advances and Cambodian technique,” the world’s longest-serving prime minister wrote on his Facebook page in a post boasting images of a beautiful wrist watch.
“It is to let them know that Cambodia now can produce watches and I will present them as gifts to the leaders and I will wear the watch as we host the summit,” the Cambodian leader said in October when announcing the plan to produce 25 watches as commemorative gifts to foreign dignitaries.
Cambodia is the 2022 chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the prime minister sees the summit as the pinnacle of a successful year of chairmanship for Phnom Penh.
Leaders of the ten member states of ASEAN, its partner countries and heads of prominent international organizations are invited to the summit.
“This gift is very much in line with Hun Sen's personal tastes, given his own well-documented collection of luxury watches,” said Sebastian Strangio, a regional political analyst and author of the book “Hun Sen’s Cambodia.”
“It should be seen as part of the diplomatic pageantry that surrounds ASEAN meetings, though, without more information, it is hard to say how much these gifts will cost the Cambodian government,” Strangio said.
The Made-in-Cambodia watches immediately attracted attention from horologists and watch aficionados.
“The dial side is very simple, with a champagne gold dial with Dauphine hands, and dagger applique markers. The watch features a sunken subsidiary seconds hand with the engraving of what looks like the Cambodian national flower Romduol,” enthused an article in ‘Deployant’, an online magazine specializing in watches and luxury gadgets.
“And the pièce de résistance is the tourbillon,” the story said, referring to the special mechanism that helps improve accuracy in high-end watches.
The tourbillon of the ASEAN watch appears gold or gold-plated and is adorned with 25 ruby-colored “jewels.” It is unclear how much the watch costs.
While noting that it looks worthy of a Swiss or German high end manufacture label, “the watch is made in Cambodia, which makes it even more impressive,” the magazine said.
Hun Sen’s post received tens of thousands likes and was shared nearly 7,000 times on Facebook.
Most commentators complimented what they saw as the excellent craftsmanship by Cambodian watchmakers, as well as Hun Sen’s leadership.
The former military commander has served as the Kingdom’s prime minister since 1985.
Lack of cultural identity
Hun Sen’s choice of present however was met with some criticism. Political analyst Em Sovannara told RFA’s Khmer Service in an earlier interview that the leader should instead have opted for something that highlights Cambodia's cultural identity, such as the Apsara temples or other cultural properties.
Cambodia’s Angkor temples are world famous and the Angkor Wat complex is depicted on the national flag.
Critics say buying foreign-made spare parts to assemble in Cambodia and call the watches “Cambodian” is a waste of the national budget and does little to raise the country’s profile, especially when the tenure of the current ASEAN chairmanship has left many issues unaddressed.
Government spokesman Sok Ey San rejected Em Sovannara's criticism as “nonsense.”
“The watches are made for heads of states, presidents,” he said, adding that “these are not cheap replicas worth 20 to 30 dollars.”
Another analyst, Kim Sok, told RFA Khmer that “a country’s image does not depend on the provision of watches, it depends on the ability of the government to lead.”
Back in 2020 Prime Minister Hun Sen came under fire after being seen flaunting a collection of million dollar watches.
One of these, a Patek Philippe watch distinguished by white gold engravings and a blue leather strap, is valued at U.S. $1.2 million.
Reports criticizing Hun Sen’s choice of watches are driven only by envy, Sok Ey San said at the time to RFA’s Khmer Service.
“The point here is that it was legally purchased. It was not trafficked or bought with ‘black money’,” Sok Ey San said.
Cambodia ranked close to the bottom, at 162 out of 198 countries, in Transparency International’s 2019 Corruption Perceptions Index.
An estimated 2.8 million people live below the poverty line in Cambodia and Hun Sen himself, as the head of the government, earns a modest salary of $2,500 per month.