Official Says Hungarian Delegation, Foreign Ministry Asked for No Masks

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Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto shakes hands with Agriculture Minister Veng Sakhon at a signing ceremony in Phnom Penh on November 3, 2020, as Prime Minister Hun Sen and Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn look on, in this photograph posted to Hun Sen’s Facebook page.
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A government minister said on Thursday that the Hungarian delegation that visited this week — and from which a member later tested positive for Covid-19 — along with the Foreign Affairs Ministry had asked for no mandatory masks, alcohol spraying or temperature checks during a signing ceremony.

Their quick visit — arriving and departing on the same day — also apparently violated Health Ministry measures requiring that all diplomats are tested upon arrival and must wait 24 hours for test results.

Peter Szijjarto, the Hungarian Foreign Minister, visited Phnom Penh on Tuesday — signing three agreements with the government as well as visiting a museum and meeting students — and tested positive after flying to Bangkok that night.

Prime Minister Hun Sen presided over the signing ceremony, and said Wednesday night that he had tested negative for Covid-19 and would go into quarantine for two weeks. The Health Ministry said on Thursday morning that more than 600 people had tested negative after concerns they had been in contact with Szijjarto.

Agriculture Minister Veng Sakhon, who signed one of the three agreements with Szijjarto, said on Thursday that he and other officials at the ceremony had been tested and were working from home.

He had not worn a mask at the Tuesday meeting because he had been asked not to, Sakhon said.

The Foreign Affairs Ministry and Hungarian delegation had requested “the Agriculture Ministry to not spray alcohol on its representatives, and not require representatives to wear a mask, so we implemented what they had observed and evaluated.”

His ministry’s representatives otherwise always take their temperatures and use alcohol sprays to disinfect their hands before meetings, he said.

“We didn’t dare to do it because the [Hungarian] embassy official and Foreign Affairs Ministry had instructed us. … We do not dare to breach the protocol,” Sakhon said.

Photos from the ceremony, however, show members of the Hungarian delegation — excluding Szijjarto — wearing face masks. Most attendees of another meeting between Hungarian and Cambodian officials, except Szijjarto and Hun Sen, are wearing masks in photos posted to the prime minister’s Facebook page.

In January, early in the coronavirus’ global outbreak, Hun Sen threatened to kick out journalists and government officials from an event if they wore masks.

“The prime minister does not wear a mask, so why should you be wearing a mask here,” Hun Sen said, according to the Associated Press.

Water Resources Minister Lim Kean Hor, who on Wednesday said he had sprayed his hands with alcohol after a handshake with Szijjarto, said he was only following others’ behavior by not wearing a mask at the signing ceremony.

“I don’t understand it either — we didn’t see others wearing masks so we didn’t wear them,” Kean Hor said on Thursday. “So we all complied with it. If we wore a mask, I would have been alone and different.”

Kean Hor added that he, two other officials from his ministry, a driver and bodyguard were tested for Covid-19 and had negative results.

A Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesperson did not reply to questions.

In a statement on Wednesday, the ministry said Szijjarto and all members of his delegation had health certificates attesting that they were free of Covid-19 before arriving in Cambodia.

A Health Ministry statement issued in August, however, says “all diplomats and officials of International Organizations … are required to conduct a test upon arrival in Cambodia.”

“All diplomats and officials of International Organizations shall wait for test results at least 24 hours, at any hotel or accommodation in compliance with the Standard Operating Procedure,” it says.

A representative of the Hungarian Embassy in Bangkok said relevant officers were not available for comment. Calls to the Hungarian Embassy in Hanoi were unanswered. The Hungarian Foreign Affairs Ministry has not responded to emailed questions.

Before the Hungarian delegation’s arrival, Cambodia hosted Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on October 11 and 12, when he signed a long-awaited bilateral trade deal, and Japanese Foreign Minister Motegi Toshimitsu visited for three days in August. 

State news outlet Agence Kampuchea Presse has reported that Korean National Assembly president Park Byeong-seug was scheduled to visit Phnom Penh this month.

Additional reporting by Danielle Keeton-Olsen

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