PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA - Philippine flags, banners, and a portrait of President Duterte are now displayed in the streets of the Cambodian capital ahead of his state visit here.
Philippine Ambassador to Cambodia Christopher Montero said the visit has been elevated from an official to a state visit, which is also the first "standalone" bilateral visit of a Philippine president in 20 years.
Montero said Prime Minister Hun Sen personally admires President Duterte for "standing up" against the West in calling for noninterference in state affairs. Cambodia is a known close ally of China.
"Prime Minister Hun Sen has deep admiration for President Duterte. He has expressed it publicly in the past. He sees in him an ally in terms of standing up against Western countries insofar as noninterference in internal affairs of state is concerned," Montero told reporters.
"The fact that it was elevated to a state visit only shows, demonstrates, that Cambodia attaches great value to its bilateral relations with the Philippines in spite of certain differences in our approach to the South China Sea issue. But again, the South China Sea issue is not the defining issue in terms of our bilateral relations are concerned."
Montero expects a "lively discussion" between Duterte and Prime Minister Hun Sen on that subject when the two leaders meet on Wednesday.
Cambodia's efforts in 2012 to block the mention of the Philippine move to sue China in the arbitral court on maritime rights in an ASEAN meeting statement did not sit well with then Philippine President Benigno Aquino III. Duterte has since forged closer ties with China and veered away from the United States.
The South China Sea issue "may or may not be discussed, with Montero saying it is not "a defining issue" between the two countries. He pointed out that there are other areas of cooperation such as agriculture, tourism, culture, and sports.
Upon arrival Tuesday evening, Duterte will meet with the Filipino community in a hotel where more than a thousand are expected to attend.
Duterte won 70 percent of the overseas absentee vote here in Cambodia. There are 5,699 registered Filipinos with the embassy as of October 2016.
"They're really looking forward to meeting the President. We would have wanted more Filipinos to join the Filipino community gathering but because of limitations of the venue, we have to set the cap at 1,000 lang because otherwise dudumugin talaga ang lugar. There's widespread support of the Filipino community in Cambodia. They're really, really excited to see the President even if it's just for an hour or so," Montero said.
The arrival ceremony for Duterte at the Royal Palace will happen on the second day of his visit where he will also have a royal audience with Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni.
Duterte will then offer a wreath at the monument of King Norodom Sihanouk, known as the Father of Cambodia.
In the afternoon, he will be at the Peace Palace for a meeting with Prime Minister Hun Sen, an expanded bilateral meeting, and signing of agreements.
At least two agreements, on sports and tourism cooperation are expected to be signed. Agreements concerning cooperation on transnational crime and labor are still being finalized.
FIGHTS AGAINST DRUGS
If signed, the agreement on transnational crime will involve cooperation between the Philippine National Police and the Cambodian national police to fight terrorism, extremism, financial and economic crimes, and drug trafficking.
"It highlights and supports, lends an international dimension to the president's campaign against the drug menace," Montero said.
According to Montero, there are 9 Filipinos who are currently serving prison sentence here for drug trafficking, mostly cocaine from South America.
The sports cooperation will involve people-to-people exchange, training, exchange of best practices in sports management.
Senator Manny Pacquiao is joining the President's delegation, with Cambodian sports officials having requested a meeting with boxing champion. Cambodia is hosting the Sea Games in 2023.
Montero said Pacquiao has a following in Cambodia and counts the Prime Minister as one of his fans.
"He is to them an example of Asian making it big in the international sports scene," Montero said.
"Here in Cambodia if you say you are from the Philippines, the first thing that they will tell you is 'Manny Pacquiao.' Because in fact the Prime Minister himself is a huge fan of Manny Pacquiao and I must tell you for the Filipino community gathering that we will be having, there were more than 50 Cambodians who wanted to, who registered for the event, because they knew of course the President is also hugely popular here, but they knew Manny Pacquiao will also be coming but we had to turn them away because it's exclusively for Filipinos," he added.
President Duterte is also expected to meet with the head of the Cambodian Chamber of Commerce, Cambodian businessmen, and meet representatives from at least 8 Filipino companies that do business in Cambodia.
The King will host Duterte in a royal banquet at the Royal Palace Wednesday evening before the President leaves for Singapore.
"We're looking forward and we're confident that it will be a productive and fruitful visit for our President," Montero said.