Authoritarianism ascendant: Cambodia’s politics and Australia’s dilemmas

The recent decisions by the government of Cambodia to arrest opposition leader Kem Sokha on treason  charges, force the closure of a major English-language daily (as well as over a dozen radio outlets), expel a US funded pro-democracy group, and place new strictures on political parties do not bode well for the country’s already frail democracy. Many analysts, civil society groups and human rights activists view these decisions as portents of a further move toward one-party rule under Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) government ahead of national elections scheduled for 2018. For its part, the CPP has characterised the decisions as a defence of Cambodia’s ‘sovereignty’ and ‘national security’ in the face of alleged foreign interference. Hun Sen has vowed subsequently that he intends to remain in power for another decade.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, Australia and its Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) neighbours played a prominent role in the re-establishment of peace and democracy in Cambodia following the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime of the 1970s and a decade of a Vietnamese occupation during the 1980s. Reflecting on developments since the landmark 1991 Cambodia settlement, former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans observed in 2012:

At the signing of the Paris Peace Agreements in 1991 I said in the course of my speech: “Peace and freedom are not prizes which, once gained, can never be lost. They must be won again each day. Their foundations must be sunk deep into the bedrock of political stability, economic prosperity and above all else, the observance of human rights.”

The truth of that observation has been amply demonstrated in the course of events since 1993. The democratic process has remained fragile, the biggest shock coming with Hun Sen's coup in July 1997, but with plenty of other things to be legitimately concerned about before and since, including the continued obstacles put in the way of [former opposition leader] Sam Rainsy and his party operating as a full-throated opposition voice, and in the case of Sam Rainsy himself, even being able to be present in the country. It is unhappily not an exaggeration to describe Cambodia today as a de facto one-party state.

In an op-ed published in March 2014, Evans was more forceful:

Cambodia’s government has been getting away with murder. Not the kind of genocidal slaughter conducted by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. Nor the scale of killing that has been roiling Syria, or that that has put Ukraine, Venezuela, Thailand, and Bangladesh in the global headlines of late. But murder nonetheless, with Cambodian citizens deliberately targeted by their country’s security forces.

There is a place for quiet diplomacy that relies on genuine engagement to encourage significant behavioural change. But when states behave badly enough for long enough, loud megaphones can also be in order. I know Hun Sen and worked well with him in the past. I have resisted strong public criticism until now, because I thought there was hope for both him and his government. But their behaviour has now moved beyond the civilised pale. It is time for Cambodia’s leaders to be named, shamed, investigated, and sanctioned by the international community.

The Australian Government has differed in its public assessments of the contemporary situation in Cambodia. In August 2015, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop appeared to refute allegations of widespread human rights abuses in Cambodia:

Human rights organisations are very quick to continue to condemn countries for their past. Cambodia is determined to put its past behind it, and to build its capacity to be a developed country and just as other countries in South East Asia have gone from developing to developed countries, and they can be very difficult and painful journeys, so Cambodia and other countries wish to become a developed country and we should give them every support.

In response to the most recent developments, the Australian Government stated that it is ‘concerned by the arrest of Cambodian opposition leader Kem Sokha … We urge Cambodian authorities to handle the matter in an open and transparent manner, and to take all necessary steps to maintain an open democratic space in which all voices can be heard’.

Some critics have charged that the priority afforded to a 2014 refugee resettlement agreement has dominated Australian Government policy on Cambodia at the expense of human rights and broader bilateral and regional interests. Whatever the case, the additional $40 million in aid over four years that accompanied the agreement means that Cambodia is now among Australia’s top five aid recipients (after Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Solomon Islands and East Timor).

More broadly, a key dilemma facing Australia and other like-minded nations is how to calibrate support for civil society, governance reform and economic development in a political context where the CPP is continuing to expand its dominance of state institutions and civic space, including through the threat and use of violence. Some analysts have suggested that a punitive response to Cambodia’s democratic backsliding may be futile in that it could simply further the influence of other nations, particularly China. China is the country’s biggest investor and a major source of aid and trade. Cambodia is now routinely (if not entirely accurately) described as a ‘client-state’ of China. In contrast to the response of some Western nations to Kem Sokha’s arrest, Beijing has stated that China ‘supports the Cambodian government’s efforts to protect national security and stability’. A punitive response could also play directly into Hun Sen’s escalating claims of ‘foreign interference’; claims that resonate strongly in a country that has been at the mercy of changing geopolitical conditions for much of its post-colonial existence.

The most recent developments in Cambodian politics sharpen this dilemma. Looking over the wider region, however, Cambodia is not unique. There have been sustained assaults on the rule of law, a growth in authoritarian variants of populism, and worsening human rights trajectories in other ASEAN countries in recent years, including Thailand and the Philippines. In Myanmar, the United Nations most senior human rights official has alleged that the government is engaging in a campaign of ‘ethnic cleansing’ against the Muslim Rohingya population in the country’s north-west. Even in Indonesia there is growing concern about democratic ‘stagnation’ and ‘regression’.

These dilemmas are likely to become more visible after 2018 when Australia is expected to commence a three-year term on the United Nations Human Rights Council. Here, Australia will be responsible for helping review and assess countries’ progress against various international human rights instruments. In January 2014, the Australian Government did register concerns regarding Cambodia’s human rights record during a periodic review of Cambodia’s progress. The next review is scheduled for early 2019.     



Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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