Victorian Labor MP Julian Hill has urged Australia to “get real” in its approach to Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen, accusing the leader of “taking the piss” on human rights and political dissent.
Mr Hill delivered his searing appraisal in a speech to Parliament on the eve of the anniversary of the Paris Peace Accords, which brought an end to Cambodia’s long civil war.
The remarks also came ahead of a meeting between members of the Cambodian community in Australia and MPs in Canberra on Wednesday. The group organised the meeting to bring attention to the anniversary
Mr Hill warned against attacks on human rights in Cambodia, described the nation as having a “dying democracy” which is under threat from the repression of unjustly detained political activists.
“Hun Sen is taking the piss. It’s time to press reset and seek a co-ordinated approach by like-minded nations,” he told Parliament on Tuesday.
“[His] regime has attacked human rights, killed democracy, given away the Cambodian people’s sovereignty, accumulated secret wealth overseas for his family and undermined prosperity in our region.”
The UN-brokered Paris Peace Accords agreement was signed 28 years ago on 23 October, paving the way for an end to the conflict in Cambodia and democratic elections to ensue.
Hun Sen has maintained his grip on power in Cambodia for 34 years, winning every seat in Cambodia’s parliament in elections held in July 2018.
His government has long been accused of silencing political dissent, including banning the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party in September 2017, and cracking down on democracy activists.
‘We want Cambodia to have a real democracy’
The President of the Cambodian Association of Victoria, Youhorn Chea, led the delegation of Cambodians meeting with MPs to advocate for preserving democratic freedoms in Cambodia.
Mr Chea vividly recalls life during the civil war in the country of his birth. He lived under the rule of the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979 before he came to Australia.
He expressed deep concern for the state of democracy in Cambodia, urging Australian leaders not shirk their responsibility to hold the Hun Sen government to account.
“I know very well what is democracy and what is Khmer Rouge. Hun Sen and the government are the same as Khmer Rouge,” he told SBS News.
“At the moment Hun Sen does not believe in democracy at all. He is a dictator…he just put those people in the jail.”
Mr Chea arrived in Australia as a refugee in 1982 after escaping conflict and political unrest in his home country by fleeing to the Thai border.
Mr Chea said seeing political repression in his homelands deeply affects the community.
“Not only me but everyone feels very very sad . It is very very bad. They [the Hun Sen government] just put the opposition in jail,” he said.
“We want Cambodia to have a real democracy. It is very very sad, very very sad.”
Mr Hill was among MPs who met with the Cambodian community in Canberra the night before had delivered his powerful defence of democratic values in the country.
He believes Cambodia’s commitment to democracy is being undermined, noting an “appalling deterioration” of human rights documented by monitors.
“Through this historic agreement, Australia and the world made a promise to the Cambodian people to stand up for human rights, peace and democracy. But 28 years on, the world has failed to keep its promise,” he said.
“Instead, Hun Sen’s regime has attacked human rights, killed democracy, given away the Cambodian people’s sovereignty, accumulated secret wealth overseas for his family and undermined prosperity in our region.”
Mr Hill said Australia needs to do more to bring the regime into line, accusing the Morrison government of failing to take a “stronger stand” against an “authoritative takeover” in Cambodia.
“The Minister for Foreign Affairs and DFAT need to get real,” he said.
“And the 1991 Paris Peace Accords are the place to start. The accords are of continuing legal and moral relevance.”
He directly targeted Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison, saying Mr Morrison talks a “big game” but has failed to act to protect political activists facing repression.
“It’s not good enough to just keep saying ‘all options are on the table’ and yet do nothing,” he said.
“People will be entitled to ask, ‘What were you doing Prime Minister when democracy was dying in Cambodia?
“Why did you fail to act?”
‘What I saw truly shocked me’
On Wednesday the exiled vice president of the banned Cambodian opposition party CNRP, Mu Sochua, was deported from Thailand to Indonesia.
The deportation was triggered after a request was made from Hun Sen’s government.
From there she reportedly returned to the United States to find safety.
In his speech, Mr Hill also cited the treatment towards another former opposition leader, Kem Sokha, who has been detained under House arrest in Phnom Penh.
Mr Hill recently travelled to Cambodia to meet with human rights groups and alleged victims of the Cambodian regime.
His seat of Bruce is home to one of Australia’s largest community of Cambodians.
“What I saw truly shocked me, both as a friend of the Cambodian people and as an Australian concerned for a peaceful and stable region,” he said.
“Street protesters are effectively banned and ordinary citizens are harassed by the police just for speaking up on social media.
“The state of democracy in Cambodia was even worse than I thought.”
Human Rights Watch has noted dozens of politically motivated arrests in Cambodia over the past three months, accusing the regime of “heavy-handed repression”. But the government has strongly refuted claims of political persecution saying it has responded against a coup plot.
During his time in Cambodia, Mr Hill visited the coastal city of Sihanoukville in Cambodia, which he described as a “wild, wild west of old”.
He warned against the “selling out” of the nation to increasing Chinese investment in cities such as this and the perceived facilitation of Chinese military planning.
“It’s like the fantasies…casinos, booze, guns, riches, women, you name it,” he said.
“But the promised dreams are not the reality. Sihanoukville is the worst place I have ever been.”
Mr Hill blamed Prime Minister Hun Sen for Cambodia’s state of affairs.
“Hun Sen…is so desperate to stay in power that he is selling out his country.”
“Giving away the Cambodian people’s sovereignty to foreign countries and pocketing the cash,” he said.
“It may be couched as [Belt and Road Investment] …[but] the same salami-slicing tactics that the world saw in the South China Sea are happening here.”
From next year, Hun Sen has determined the Paris Accords Agreement will no longer be commemorated as a public holiday.