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Cambodia’s Year in Review: 2023

Cambodia Celebrates 100 Years of Christianity (January)


Former Prime Minister Hun Sen and Prime Minister Hun Manet joined the celebration of 100 years of Christianity in Cambodia from January 27-28. The two day event drew nearly 30,000 Christians from Cambodia and around the world over two days. Christianity first came to Cambodia in 1923 and currently, there are 114,402 registered Christians. While the first Christians here were predominantly Protestant and Catholic, their churches and cemeteries were destroyed during the Khmer Rouge era. These days, there is a large Mormon missionary community that spreads their message to rural populations.


Rural Communities Threatened by Bird Flu Cases (February)


The H5N1 bird flu continued to circulate in rural parts of Cambodia this year with four cases reported, three of which were fatal. This brings the number of human bird flu cases to 60 since 2005, 40 of which have been fatal. In February an 11-year-old girl from Prey Veng Province died from an H5N1 infection. Cases subsided for months until October when a 2-year-old girl from Prey Veng and a 50-year-old man from Svay Rieng lost their lives to the virus. A 21-year-old woman from Kampot Province contracted the virus in November, but was able to recover.

The H5N1 bird flu is usually transmitted between birds, but can sometimes be transmitted to humans through close contact with sick or dead birds. The Ministry of Health has reminded citizens to be vigilant about monitoring symptoms like fever, cough or difficulty breathing which could indicate a bird flu infection. While spreading the virus from human to human is rare, the Ministry said those with symptoms should not attend gatherings or travel to highly-populated towns.


Cambodia Reclaims Stolen Cultural Heritage (March)


2023 was a big year for the restoration of Cambodia’s historical heritage as museums and collections from around the world returned artifacts found to have been stolen during the country’s political upheaval. Much of the art was returned due to ties to late disgraced art smuggler Douglas Latchford, who bought and sold precious Khmer artifacts that had been stolen from ancient temples and shrines. In March, the government held a reception ceremony for dozens of returned stolen artifacts including sandstone statues and 77 pieces of traditional jewelry from the United Kingdom.

September saw the return of 33 ancient Khmer statues from the collection of the late oil and gas tycoon, George Lindemann in the United States. In August, the Australian National Gallery repatriated three bronze statues after an investigation showed they had been obtained illegally by Latchford.

Just this month, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art agreed to return 14 Cambodian cultural treasures currently in its possession, after years of negotiations between itself, the Cambodian government, and the US Attorney’s office.


Covid-19 Measures Relaxed (April)


In April, former Prime Minister Hun Sen declared Cambodia’s battle against Covid had been won and lifted the remainder of Covid restrictions. Calling it a New Year’s gift to the people, he removed mask and rapid test requirements for all major events ahead of the approaching SEA Games.

Official reports of Covid dwindled dramatically this year, with the Kingdom being declared Covid free in October after 31 straight days of no new cases. This week, however, the Ministry of Health reported four cases of Covid. Cambodia’s low rates of infection have been attributed to high vaccination rates (around 94% for the first dose) and effective health policies at the virus’s outbreak.


Cambodia Hosts Its First SEA Games (May)


The 32nd SEA Games in Cambodia, held in May 2023, had a profound impact on Cambodia’s regional and international image. Athletes from eleven countries competed in 37 sports, with Cambodia placing 4th place overall with a total of 282 medals. Key highlights included outstanding performances in athletics, taekwondo, boxing, and cycling, with athletes like Sorn Seavmey, Sorn Khemach, and Heng Mech making their mark. The event promoted cultural exchange, highlighted sporting talent, and provided a boost to tourism, investment, and local businesses.

Kun Khmer vs. Muay Thai

The 2023 SEA Games did not come without their share of controversy, especially when it came to martial arts. As the event was hosted by Cambodia, Muay Thai was replaced by Kun Khmer, leading to a Thai boycott of the category. Cambodia secured 15 medals (13 gold, 2 silver) in the category and was proud to see its native fighting style featured on the international stage.

Thailand confirmed that Muay Thai will return for the 33rd SEA Games in Thailand in 2025, bringing an end to Kun Khmer’s brief glory at the SEA Games.

Runner Bou Samnang Steals the Heart of the Nation


In a touching display of determination, Bou Samnang pushed through exhaustion and tears to finish last in the 5,000-meter race at the SEA Games, in a torrential downpour. Her commitment resonated with spectators, including former Prime Minister Hun Sen and the First Lady. Touched by her spirit, they gifted her $10,000, recognizing her determination. Samnang's remarkable effort serves as a reminder that sometimes the greatest victories are not in winning.

Thailand Football Brawl


At the 32nd SEA Games, the Thai national football team stirred controversy by discarding their medals after a heated match against Indonesia. Tensions flared on May 16, leading to an on-field brawl and a record number of yellow and red cards. Indonesia secured the gold with a 5-2 win, while Thai defender Khemdee announced his retirement and threw his silver medal into the crowd. Despite the chaos, the Indonesian team celebrated their first gold since 1991, cherishing their victory at the SEA Games

Para Games Highlight Strengths of Disabled Athletes (June)


Following the success of the SEA Games, Cambodia hosted the 12th ASEAN Para Games the next month. Cambodian athletes brought home a remarkable 71 medals, including 9 gold, 18 silver, and 44 bronze, defying expectations and lighting up the Games. Cambodian women dominated the medal count winning a majority of the nation's gold medals. This stellar performance marks a significant improvement from previous editions, showcasing the dedication and talent of Cambodian para-athletes across various sports. From Vet Chanta's three golds in athletics to Sinet An's torch-lighting moment, Cambodia's team left their mark on the regional stage. The Games concluded, and Cambodia's 71-medal haul is a testament to their resilience and growing competitiveness. This is just the beginning for Cambodia's para-athletes, with their future filled with promise and potential for even greater triumphs!


Former PM vs. Facebook (June)


In June, the relationship between former Prime Minister Hun Sen and Facebook turned sour after the Meta Oversight Board threatened to suspend the former PM’s account for “incitement of violence and legal intimidation” against his political opponents.

The former PM subsequently stepped away from Facebook, which at the time was his most popular social media platform with 14 million followers, and instructed his followers to join him on Telegram and Tiktok. “There is nothing to suspend if I do not have it,” he said. A few days later, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that all 22 members of Meta’s Oversight Board were banned from entering Cambodia for “obstructing the freedom of the press.”

Ultimately, Meta officially rejected the Oversight Board’s recommendation, saying it would, “not be consistent with our policies, including our protocol on restricting accounts of public figures during civil unrest.” No action was taken in the end.

Former Prime Minister Hun Sen returned to the platform in September, where he continues to promote his legacy and the leadership of his son, Prime Minister Hun Manet.


Cambodia Holds 7th General Election (July)


On July 23, Cambodians voted in their seventh general election since free elections were established in 1993. Once again, the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) achieved a landslide victory, with the National Election Committee saying it had won 82.3% of the total votes with preliminary numbers recording 6,398,193 votes for the CPP and 716,443 votes going to royalist party FUNCINPEC. The NEC also noted around 440,000 spoiled ballots, many of which had been crossed out in protest of the election.

The election was held under the observation of thousands of domestic observers and over 300 international observers from 65 countries and institutions. Not one of the observers noted any irregularities in the democratic process and declared the elections free and fair. However, major powers like the US, the European Union and Japan refused to send official government observers, with the EU saying that 'inclusive, transparent' conditions were not in place for a democratic election, citing the absence of the only major opposition party on the ballot.

The CPP victory earned the party 120 of the 125 seats in the National Assembly and paved the way for the country’s first new Prime Minister in nearly 40 years-Prime Minister Hun Manet-who would assume power the next month.

Parts of Phnom Penh Submerged in Record Flooding (July)


Heavy rain in Phnom Penh on the evening of July 3 caused the most extreme flooding the city has seen in three years, with the estimated rainfall at 153 mm, or just over six inches. Social media was flooded with images and videos of stranded vehicles in knee-deep water throughout the city. The former and current administrations have vowed to improve the drainage systems in metropolitan areas and Phnom Penh residents have seen an increase in drainage construction around the city.

Flooding continued to be an issue in the provinces as well, with a woman being killed in Kampot later that month followed by a stretch of the main road to Mondulkiri being wiped out that same week. In late September, a cafe in Pursat was swept away by floodwaters.


Next Generation of Cambodian Leaders Appointed (August)


On August 22, a new era of Cambodian politics began as Prime Minister Hun Manet officially took over as the head of government, effectively ending his father’s 38-year reign. Former Prime Minister Hun Sen announced he would be stepping away from his role just days after the July election results were confirmed. He said that the transition of power to the next generation was for the sake of long-term stability.

Prime Minister Hun Manet officially took office on August 22 and has since made a successful debut on the international stage having attended the ASEAN Summit in Jakarta, the UN General Assembly in New York, and paying official visits to the leaders of China and Vietnam during his first four months in office.

The new Prime Minister also appointed new Cabinet members, many of whom were also children of former ministers, solidifying the CPP’s vision of a new generation of leaders.

That month the first female president of the National Assembly was also appointed, as Khuon Sodary took over from Heng Samrin, who had held the position for nearly 20 years.


Koh Ker Becomes UNESCO World Heritage Site (September)


The international prominence of Cambodia’s cultural history made another leap forward this year when, on September 17, Koh Ker Temple was officially inscribed as Cambodia's fourth UNESCO World Heritage Site. The temple predates the famous Angkor Wat and has existed in the shadow of the nearby Preah Vihear Temple, which was inscribed on the list in 2008.

Since its inscription, tourism numbers in Koh Ker have skyrocketed, often eclipsing those of Preah Vihear as visitors rush to see what makes the site a jewel in Cambodia’s preserved Khmer heritage.


New PM Makes International Debut (September)


Having been in office for just over two weeks, Prime Minister Hun Manet made his international debut in Jakarta at the 43rd ASEAN Summit. At 45 years old, he was the youngest leader at the summit and was warmly welcomed by his ASEAN counterparts. Over four days, the prime minister attended 32 meetings, leaving him little time to rest, but confirming his legitimacy on an international stage.

Later that month, the Prime Minister headed to New York for the UN General Assembly where he gave a keynote address promoting global peace, demining efforts, and his administration’s Pentagon Strategy.


Cambodian Student Killed in Israel (October)


A Cambodian student was among the estimated 1,200 killed during the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7. Chan Udom was a third-year Veterinary Medicine student at the Royal University of Agriculture and had been studying in Israel for less than a month when he was killed. His body was repatriated for a traditional burial on October 24. Following the attack, Cambodian families worried about over 400 Cambodian students who remained in Israel, but were confirmed safe. Since that day, Israel retaliated by killing over 21,000 people in Gaza including civilians and an unprecedented number of children.



Phnom Penh Celebrates First Water Festival in Four Years (November)


Millions of revellers descended on Phnom Penh for the first Water Festival since the Covid outbreak. During the day, guests were treated to dragon boat races with over 300 boats from all over Cambodia racing for glory. Thousands of vendors sold local food and souvenirs as concerts rang out around the city. At night, illuminated boats took to the river with beautiful displays against the backdrop of fireworks shows. The three day festival served as a wonderful reintroduction to Cambodia’s celebratory spirit.


Battambang Becomes UNESCO Creative City (November)


The city of Battambang's hard work paid off as UNESCO included it in the Creative Cities Network. UNESCO recognized Battambang's food culture, making it the first Cambodian city on the list. Local dishes like Nem Battambang (soft fish), Prahok Battambang, Amok Battambang, Kralan Battambang (sticky rice stuffed in bamboo tube), Sangvak Battambang, Papaya Salad Battambang, Kantuy Hes Battambang, Rice Paper Battambang and more highlight its gastronomy. The recognition enhances culture, creativity, and economic growth. Battambang also hosts cultural events, like the S'Art Festival. Cambodia now hopes to see Siem Reap, Kratie, and Kampot join the list for their unique cultural contributions.


Madama Butterfly Takes to Cambodian Stage (December)


Phnom Penh enjoyed a rare operatic spectacle at the Koh Pich Theater. A one-night performance of "Madama Butterfly" impressed a crowd of 1,800, earning a standing ovation. Italian Ambassador Paolo Dionisi and Assistant Operatic Director Sisowath Ravivaddhana Monipong stressed the cultural significance, highlighting Cambodia and Italy's shared appreciation for heritage. The show, featuring Khmer Apsara dancers and a talented international cast, marked a cross-cultural celebration. Organizers hope to see more large theatrical productions in Cambodia's emerging fine arts scene.


Angkor Remembrance Festival Honors 31 Years as World Heritage Site (December)


The Apsara Authority hosted the third "Remembrance of Angkor '' event from December 7-16, presided over by First Lady Pich Chanmony. The celebration marked 31 years since Angkor Wat's inscription on UNESCO's World Heritage List, a milestone achieved on December 14, 1992. During the festival, guests were treated to a variety of performances, including classical dance, Yike and modern theater, Khmer costumes, modern contemporary concerts and the participation of artists from the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts.

The event paid tribute to Khmer leaders and ancestors who built and maintained the temples, ensuring their continued cultural and historical significance. This iconic site remains a key tourist attraction, generating over $32 million in ticket sales this year.


By Kristen Winters/ National


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