After a recent warning by exiled Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy of a “massacre” following Prime Minister Hun Sen’s threat to use the armed forces to decimate the already outlawed opposition, coupled with last week’s failed parliamentary motion by the leader of the Australian Greens, Senator Richard Di Natale, to sanction Cambodia, the time is ripe for a fresh assessment of whether Australia’s foreign policy is complicit in Cambodia’s dictatorship.

Hun Sen’s threats of a massacre came after a recent Asia Times article focusing on his obsession with violence. But if a massacre were to occur, it would not be the first under Hun Sen’s dictatorship. Undoubtedly, given the habitual failure by the international community to take action against Hun Sen, it is highly likely he would get away with another one. All that he would have to bear is being “condemned” by the international community.

In 2010, Cambodia encountered a different kind of massacre – a stampede resulting from “peace and economic development.” More than 340 people were reportedly killed and some 770 injured by the stampede on a bridge built by Hun Sen’s family. Never in the history of Cambodia, despite past horrendous atrocities during armed conflicts in the 1970s, were so many people killed en masse.

Yet not a single person was prosecuted or otherwise held accountable, as the international community has always been keen to play along with the government’s diplomatic overtures and cooperation. Justice has always eluded the victims.

Australian tolerance of Hun Sen

Canberra’s tolerance of Hun Sen’s adversarial stance and its ongoing provision of academic training to members of Cambodia’s “armed forces for rent” at the Australian Defense Academy in Canberra since 2013 support the view that its hands are stained with Cambodian blood. This is further supported by a report by Human Rights Watch calling for sanctions against Cambodia’s “dirty dozen generals” involved in serious human rights violations committed since the 1970s.

Further, a program on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation network carried a video clip with reference to the 2015 assault of two opposition parliamentarians who were savagely beaten in front of the Cambodian National Assembly “by members of Hun Sen’s paramilitary bodyguard unit.” While Canberra is imposing sanctions against military generals in Myanmar, Hun Sen’s crimes in Cambodia and activities in Australia’s own back yard have been met with a habitual silence by the federal government.

Australia’s mute response – if that can be classified as a “foreign policy” on Cambodia – only serves to undermine Australia’s international standing. Not only is the policy of engagement and cooperation flawed, but it is seriously misguided by the notion that after 30 years, Hun Sen could be reformed or that at least Hun Sen is better than Pol Pot – justified by economic prosperity for those who serve the regime.

As a major leader in the Asia-Pacific region, it beggars belief to see the Australian government’s acceptance of the violence committed by Hun Sen’s regime against critics and impoverished landowners. Likewise Australia’s policy of never showing support for the Cambodian opposition, unlike its current stance backing the Venezuelan opposition, indicates that Australia’s foreign policy is discriminatory and harmful.

‘Historic mistake’ perpetuated

Journalist Richard Bernstein, in his recent essay “Cambodia for Rent,” identified “a historic mistake” with reference to Sebastian Strangio, author of Cambodia’s Hun Sen, made by the United Nations in 1993 when it ceded to Hun Sen’s demand to be a co-prime minister after his election loss. His description – “the very intelligent and ruthless Hun Sen, who controlled the largest armed force in the country and much of the bureaucracy, which had been installed by Vietnam, held effective power” – remains unchanged to the present day.

This “historic mistake” perpetuates as countries like Australia continue to provide aid to Hun Sen, often comparing today’s Cambodia with a bygone era under the Khmer Rouge. This comparison does nothing more than hold up Hun Sen as a “less violent” leader than Pol Pot. The international community has taught Cambodians to accept that Hun Sen is at least better than the Khmer Rouge. At the same time, Australia and the international community continue to plow aid aimed at “helping Cambodians” move away from the Khmer Rouge era.

Australia’s military cooperation, like that of other countries, with Cambodia clearly perpetuates that historic mistake. Cambodia’s armed forces are being used as private bodyguards and subcontractors by Hun Sen and his tycoon/politician allies, frequently engaging in illegal land grabbing, while “horrific crimes have been inflicted on Cambodian citizens in order to facilitate the transfer of land and resources to well-connected companies.”

Global Diligence described the situation in 2016 as widespread and systematic land grabbing conducted by the Cambodian ruling elite for over a decade [amounting] to a crime against humanity,” and the exact situation is still recurring in remote parts of Cambodia.

Australia and other nations have a moral responsibility and legal obligation to cease aiding and abetting Hun Sen’s armed-forces-for-hire.

Another failure

On February 12, a motion led by Senator Di Natale aimed at sanctioning Cambodia was supported neither by the opposition nor the federal government. Unintentionally, this was a further sign of “a historic mistake” made by Australia.

The motion reflected the current political situation in Cambodia, noting in part:

  • That, in March 2018, Australia and 44 other countries delivered a Joint Statement to the UN Human Rights Council, citing “an electoral process from which the main democratic opposition party has been arbitrarily excluded cannot be considered genuine or legitimate.”
  • That the United States Government has implemented targeted sanctions against the Cambodian regime.
  • On 18 September 2018, the European Parliament declared that the “political structure of Cambodia can no longer be considered a democracy”, and the European Commission has begun a process to withdraw special tax concessions for Cambodia.
  • Human Rights Watch’s report, Cambodia’s Dirty Dozen, profiling 12 senior generals in the military, police and the gendarmerie responsible for serious and systematic human rights violations/
  • Allegations, aired on Four Corners, of money laundering, visa fraud and tax evasion by members of Cambodia’s regime, and the political activities of the Cambodian Embassy in recruiting members of the Cambodian community in Australia to join Cambodia’s ruling party.

The resolution declared, therefore, “that Cambodia’s Government is neither democratic, legitimate nor representative of the will of the Cambodian people.”

Di Natale said: “Once again we see the government blocking the will of the Senate and refusing us the chance to vote on what is an important motion. Cambodia’s democracy has crumbled. We’ve seen a sham election and disgraceful abuses of human rights by Hun Sen’s regime. The Greens stand shoulder to shoulder with the Cambodian community. We say loudly and clearly to Hun Sen: we will not stand by while you dismantle Cambodia’s democracy.”

Australia, Japan and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) excluding Vietnam can and should reassess whether their engagement with Cambodia contribute to a historic mistake that would see Cambodians continue to suffer towards the next century.

As Anwar Ibrahim of Malaysia commented, Australia’s foreign policy is “complicit in corruption.”

Australia’s newfound activism policy of engagement and cooperation with ASEAN plays into Hun Sen’s wicked game. Australia’s habitual tolerance of Cambodia’s dictator continues to contribute to “a historic mistake.” Its lack of moral authority to take decisive action against a corrupt regime will result in it being viewed as a lackadaisical regional partner.