Cambodia hosts the 32nd Southeast Asian Games 

After more than 60 years, Cambodia is now hosting the 32nd Southeast Asian Games (SEA Games) in Phnom Penh from 5th – 17th May 2023. The Kingdom was due to host the South East Asian Peninsular Games in 1963 but had to withdraw due to the political situation at the time. The SEA Games will bring over five thousand athletes and visitors from 11 countries in Southeast Asia to Cambodia. 

Although this is a friendly regional sporting event, several controversies have arisen. The decision to remove the word “Muay” from the kickboxing program and list the sport as “Kun Khmer” resulted in Thailand not sending their athletes to compete in this discipline. Although Thai officials claimed that Kun Khmer was indeed Muay Thai, Cambodian officials defended their decision by insisting that kickboxing originated from their Khmer culture. In addition, the SEA Games has cost USD 118 million to host the event, and an extra USD 7 million to provide free accommodation and food  to the participating athletes and Southeast Asian government officials. Moreover, Cambodia’s decision to not charge for the live broadcasting rights and provide free entrance tickets  has received some negative views from the public.  

Among many critics, Malaysia expressed its disappointment as they hoped to use the funds raised from broadcasting rights for their own domestic development plans. However, the Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has defended his decision that the tickets should be free because it was the taxpayers who paid for the Games and very few Cambodians could afford to see them if they were charged fees. Aside from this, Thailand has urged their players to focus solely on sports, and to not get involved in politics. For its part, Cambodia had called upon its host spectators to maintain their dignity by respecting other teams and players, and not insulting those they do not like during the games.  

Despite various disputes, the 32nd Southeast Asian Games kicked off successfully on 5th May and promised to be the biggest ASEAN sporting tournament in the post-COVID era. 

Former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon meets with Min Aung Hlaing 

On 24 April 2023, the former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon made a surprise visit to Myanmar to promote peace in the country which has been wracked by internal conflict since the coup of 2021.  

Ban Ki-Moon met with the junta leader and other top officials to exchange views on the latest progress towards peace in Myanmar in a friendly, positive, and open manner. In addition, Ban Ki-Moon represented The Elders – a group of former international leaders established by Nelson Mandela to work on peace, human rights, and justice – and urged the junta to “adopt an immediate cessation of violence and start a constructive dialogue among parties concerned”. However, Ban Ki-Moon did not meet with Aung San Suu Kyi during his visit. 

Ban Ki-Moon still hoped that “a way forward can be found out of the current crisis” and that “the military must take the first steps”. Ban Ki-Moon also supported calls for “the immediate release by the Myanmar military of all arbitrarily detained prisoners for constructive dialogue”. Although Ban Ki-Moon urged the junta to implement a peace plan by ASEAN, of course excluding Myanmar, some believed the UN and ASEAN had failed in their commitment to resolving the Myanmar crisis and saw this visit as the junta’s attempt to reach out to the international community to enhance its legitimacy.  

The visit will unlikely lead to any change towards peace in Myanmar. But this meeting between Ban Ki-Moon and the junta showed that the junta is now showing its interest in engaging with other external actors.  

The Philippines’ relations with the US and China 

The current relationship of the Philippines with China and the United States has seen new momentum during the first quarter of 2023. 

The Philippines Coast Guard (PCG) confronted the Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) in late April near the Second Thomas Shoal, a contested waterway in the South China Sea. This tense face-off was similar to the confrontation in February 2023 when the PCG was on its naval resupply mission in the disputed waterway. The Philippines accused the CCG of directing a military-grade laser against the Philippine vessel, blinding its crews and forcing them to retreat. However, this time a  Chinese ship blocked a Philippine patrol vessel steaming into the disputed shoal, causing a frightening near-collision only 120-150 feet from the bow of the Philippine ship. The PCG’s captain abruptly reversed the vessel’s direction and shut off its engine to avoid the collision.  

The Philippines Coast Guard Captain said the confrontation was “a sudden and really dangerous manoeuvre”. The Philippines Foreign Ministry stated that China should “refrain from actions that may cause an untoward incident”. The United States expressed its deep concern towards the tense face-off, while the Chinese Embassy in Manila did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the encounter. Although Beijing and President Marcos have agreed to discuss fishing rights, relations between the two countries seem precarious, especially in the South China Sea. 

Meanwhile, Manila’s relations with Washington have substantially improved. The Philippines had recently granted the US expanded access to its military bases in “strategic areas of the country”. On 1 May 2023, President Joe Biden welcomed President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to the White House as part of continued efforts to strengthen security and economic relations in the region amid concerns over an increasingly assertive China. The United States assured the Philippines that the US’s commitment to defend the Philippines remains “ironclad”. President Marcos also stressed that “it is only natural for the Philippines to look to its sole treaty partner”. Furthermore, the two leaders also outlined areas for cooperation, including on climate change, economic development, as well as new trade and investment missions. 

Marcos said that he was “determined to forge an ever–stronger relationship with the US in a wide range of areas that not only address the concerns of our times but also those that are critical to advancing our core interests.” One regional observer said that “Marcos is looking for assurances that the US has his back in any open confrontation with China” while others saw the visit as an indication that Marcos has chosen a different path, compared to his predecessor Duterte, in chartering the Philippines’ relationship with Washington.  

Some Filipinos also staged a protest in Washington to express their disapproval of the meeting between President Marcos and President Biden. BAYAN – a coalition of Filipino grassroots organizations – believed that this meeting “will only put the Filipino people in more danger of poverty and war”.    

For the moment, while relations between Beijing and Manila have soured due to the South China Sea tensions, the US has taken the opportunity to strengthen its relations with Manila in its effort to contain China in the region.  


Sovinda Po is a Research Assistant at the Griffith Asia Institute.