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Australia’s willful blindness to Cambodia’s slide into despotism

Image credit: UN Women (Flickr: Creative Commons)

‘Descent Into Outright Dictatorship’ decried The Cambodia Daily in its final, defiant headline. A victim of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s systematic attack on free press and civil society, the independent newspaper was intimidated into closure following a tax dispute earlier this month.

This year alone, the government has forcibly shuttered more than 30 radio stations that aired dissenting voices, expelled US non-profit the National Democratic Institute, and threatened countless other NGOs in what is widely seen as an attempt to weaken the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) ahead of the 2018 elections.

These increasingly emboldened attempts to maintain an autocratic grip over Cambodia culminated in the recent arrest of opposition leader Kem Sokha for treason, allegations that are widely viewed as politically motivated. The intention is clear. New laws mean that if Khem Sokha is found guilty, there will be grounds to dissolve the CNRP, and therefore eliminate any possibility of fair and democratic elections.

However, this crackdown also has a strong anti-West undercurrent, with Hun Sen accusing Kem Sokha of conspiring with the US and other unnamed Western powers to incite a popular uprising to topple the government. In the past, Hun Sen has retreated from such bold repression in order to ensure donor countries, such as the US and Australia, continued to pour aid money into the country, which is still feeling the aftershocks of a genocide that obliterated at least a quarter of its population.

However, the prime minister’s increasingly bellicose rhetoric belies this trend. Cambodia’s relationship with Western powers has become toxic, with Hun Sen suspending joint military exercises with both the US and Australia, and scrapping co-operation with the US to find the remains of Vietnam War veterans.

Bolstered by Chinese support and a US administration which has retreated from human rights promotion in South East Asia, Hun Sen has little reason to pay lip service to democratic processes. A spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry said that China ‘supports the Cambodian government’s efforts to protect national security and sovereignty’, including the prosecution of Kem Sokha. Combined with unconditional and lavish Chinese aid and investment that dwarfs American and Australian contributions, Hun Sen’s actions may sound the death knell for democracy in the beleaguered nation.

As an important donor and capacity-builder with a long history with Cambodia, it stands to reason that Australia should be invested in Cambodia’s democratic growth. Why, then, has this slide into despotism been ignored, save for a statement urging the government to handle Kem Sokha’s arrest ‘in an open and transparent manner’?

There have certainly been calls for Australian involvement. Mu Sochua, Vice President of the CNRP, has urged Australia to speak out and take a ‘very firm stand [against] the government of Cambodia’. Australia was one of the signatories of the 1991 Paris Peace Accords, and a leader of the UNTAC peacekeeping mission that set up the fledgling and faulty democracy. As such, Australia has been called upon to convene a special meeting to discuss Hun Sen’s violations of the Paris Peace Accords that enshrine political freedoms in Cambodia.

But Australia’s strong voice and leadership in the region have effectively been silenced by the $55 million deal to resettle asylum seekers from Nauru in Cambodia. At a time when Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is commencing a fresh push to induce asylum seekers to relocate to Cambodia, he is unlikely to risk inflaming tensions with Phnom Penh. The integrity of the deal rests on the falsity that Cambodia is a functioning democracy where the powerful uphold human rights and freedoms.

There is little pressure for Australia to act. Faced with the likelihood of a nuclear-capable North Korea, the humanitarian crisis for the Rohingya in Rakhine State and the extremist insurgency in the Philippines, the descent into dictatorship of such a tiny nation barely registers as a foreign policy priority. However Australia, and the West generally, ignore Hun Sen’s authoritarianism at their own peril. If Australia allows the democracy established by UNTAC to crumble, it risks setting a precedent for the virulent spread of despotism in Southeast Asia.

Hun Sen’s paranoia is justified. In spite of his ironclad rule of over three decades, the CNRP had strong showings in the 2013 national election and in the June local elections where they increased their control from 40 communes to 482. The tide of public opinion is turning. However, Hun Sen’s threat that he has ‘decided to continue [his] job for another ten years’ is not an empty one. He has shown that he will use any means to silence dissidence.

Australia must support the Cambodian people with concrete measures to ensure a free and fair election.

A dictatorship in Cambodia weakens Australia’s security and position in the region, and threatens the political liberalism that its foreign policy seeks to uphold.

Emma Squires is the Australian Foreign Policy Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.

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