Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen kicked off a trip to Australia Thursday to attend a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Sydney, amid protests over his government’s crackdown on the opposition in the lead up to general elections in July.
Hun Sen will be busy attending meetings at the March 17-18 ASEAN special summit on issues as diverse as counter-terrorism, trade liberalization and tensions in the South China Sea, but he will also have to contend with hundreds of Cambodian-Australians who have vowed to burn effigies of Southeast Asia’s longest-serving head of state as part of protests during his visit.
He recently dared them to do so, saying he would “follow you all the way to your doorstep and beat you right there,” suggesting it was entirely within his right to “use violence against you.”
Ek Savathey, who plans to join demonstrations, told RFA’s Khmer Service on Thursday that Hun Sen, his family, and members of his government are not welcome in Australia.
“They have ruled the country with records of human rights abuses, and have mistreated many Cambodians, all while abusing their power and using the courts as political tools to benefit themselves,” he said.
“It is not routine for us to burn effigies, but Hun Sen’s remarks have angered the protesters. He has challenged us to do so, but he made a huge mistake by threatening us with violence,” he added.
“Hun Sen has underestimated the Cambodian overseas community.”
Several members of Australia’s parliament have condemned Hun Sen’s remarks and vowed to stand behind the Cambodian community in their country and its right to peaceful protest.
In recent months, Hun Sen’s government has arrested the head of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) on charges of treason, engineered the dissolution of the CNRP for its role in an alleged plot to take over the country, and forced the closure of media groups and NGOs who have been critical of his leadership.
The crackdown has led to widespread doubts over the legitimacy of a general election in the country, planned for July 29.
On Wednesday, New York-based Human Rights Watch’s Australia director Elaine Pearson urged Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to call out ASEAN leaders such as Hun Sen, who she said “are under no illusions about their own rights records” and “are awarded an unexpected bonus when countries such as Australia give them a free pass.”
“Australia’s failure to publicly raise human rights concerns at the summit would not only provide a propaganda coup to ASEAN’s most abusive leaders, it would embolden all the region’s leaders contemplating major crackdowns, jailing journalists, or dismantling democratic institutions,” she said.
“Robust engagement on good governance, democracy, and human rights does not mean lecturing others, but instead discussing serious human rights issues that are critical to ASEAN governments and people.”
The Australian Associated Press quoted Australia’s former foreign minister Gareth Evans, who helped develop a peace plan for Cambodia in the early 1990s following the turmoil of the Khmer Rouge era, as criticizing Australia’s weak response to the ongoing crackdown in Cambodia.
“It's time for Cambodia’s political leaders to be named, shamed, investigated and sanctioned by the international community,” he said.
Hun Sen has suggested that Australia should thank him for agreeing to attend the summit, which he said “would be meaningless” without him, and warned that he could veto any joint communiqué issued at the end of the ASEAN gathering.
The prime minister’s departure for Australia came as U.N. Special Rapporteur Rhona Smith wrapped up a 10-day visit to Cambodia on Wednesday, raising concerns about restrictions on freedom of expression and warning that “peace, stability and development” should not come at the expense of human rights.
“Cambodia is at an important crossroads and must embrace human rights as they are indispensable in sustaining hard-earned peace and development,” she said in a written statement accompanying her official report.
“The right to political participation and freedom of expression are of particular importance during electoral processes, and the authorities have a responsibility to ensure that individuals, political parties and the media can operate without being threatened or sanctioned.”
On Thursday, Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs dismissed Smith’s concerns in a statement, stressing that the country’s government “is accountable for peace, stability and development … [which] are the pre-requisites for the promotion of human rights.”
The statement said that Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn told Smith during a recent meeting that “the situation in Cambodia remains calm after the dissolution of the CNRP,” demonstrating that “Cambodians understand and accept the government’s actions against the attempts by foreign countries to interfere in the internal affairs of Cambodia.”
“Cambodians want peace, stability and development ... [not] change through a color revolution,” it quoted him as saying.
According to Prak Sokhonn, he and Smith are “divided” on the “context of human rights” and will need to hold further discussions before they can come to any agreement.
But Cambodian political analyst Meas Ny, who also met with Smith, suggested Prak Sokhonn is out of touch with what Cambodians want and said that the public is simply too afraid to publicly express their dissatisfaction over the government’s crackdown on the CNRP, media and NGOs.
“Even though people are fearful of protesting, they still frequently talk amongst themselves about the current situation,” he said.
“I think CNRP support is still strong. [The people] are assessing the situation and waiting to see what they should do next. Even though they appear calm, it’s similar to how water is still on the surface, while below there is movement.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.