Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) is extending its influence into Australia by recruiting students who come here to study, often on scholarships provided by the Australian government.
An investigation by PM revealed a coordinated drive by top-ranking officials to win support from educated young students, as the party which has ruled Cambodia for more than three decades tries to shore up its future.
The campaign is run through a Cambodian youth committee, led by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s eldest son and likely heir Hun Manet, which has links to several student groups in Australia.
One student said that he and his family were threatened after speaking out against the CPP in Australia.
Several more senior members of the Cambodian-Australian community have received death threats from unknown sources.
This campaign of influence persists despite sweeping changes to foreign interference laws in June, which were designed to limit foreign meddling in Australian politics and society.
“I don’t know why we aren’t applying that law to this horrendous regime, which is sending its agents here to [influence] the Cambodian students that come here on Australian taxpayer expense,” said Hong Lim, a community leader who is also a member of Victoria’s Parliament.
“This is Australia; no other government should be allowed to operate like that — what kind of a country have we become to succumb to this kind of abuse by a dictator?”
‘We created a force’
Cambodian students in Australia told PM that some of their peers are linked to the government before they come to Australia to study.
Many others join out of fear or coercion.
Scholarship holders are first called to meet Cambodian officials before they depart for Australian universities, when they are given money and promised government jobs on their return.
“They give us like $500 each,” claimed one scholarship student we have called David Chan to protect his identity.
“They told us that if we join CPP we can get more work when we go back to Cambodia.”
Students are then referred to local party representatives in Australia.
Kalyan Ky, a former CPP insider, said that officials based in Cambodia maintain contact through certain student groups which are affiliated with the party.
The recruitment process is “centralised” and “presided over” by the strongman Prime Minister’s eldest son Hun Manet, she said.
Students told PM that Hun Manet had personally attended their meetings in Cambodia.
Hun Manet has visited Australia at least three times to rally support from students and the wider Cambodian community.
In the run-up to Cambodia’s widely-discredited July election, he openly campaigned for the CPP in Sydney.
“We created a force. In the beginning we had Australia, then New Zealand.
“We started with one person, then two and then three,” he boasted to supporters at a function in March.
“Finally, today, we have thousands, which is a strong force. This is a success!”
Images posted online by Cambodian youth groups show that students are also visited by high-ranking military officials.
Cambodia’s ambassador to Australia, Koy Kuong, has been pictured in political uniform at youth events.
Neither Hun Manet nor Koy Kuong responded to PM’s requests for comment on their alleged role in foreign recruitment.
Cambodians in Australia receiving death threats
Cambodians told PM that the CPP’s long arm of influence has made it unsafe to speak out against the regime in Australia.
Mr Chan received threats from fellow students when he criticised the government online.
He said his father was dragged in by police in Cambodia, and that his brother received a death threat from CPP agents.
He has now had to apply for asylum in Australia.
“Many CPP supporters want to kill me, or want to put me in jail,” he said.
“I cannot return. If I go now I will be arrested and killed I think, because I talked against Hun Sen.”
Four members of the more senior Cambodian-Australian community, including Mr Lim and the widow of murdered activist Dr Kem Lay, Bou Rachana, have been threatened with death in Australia.
“Of course I look over my shoulder at night when I get home. I don’t have to live a life like that. This is Australia. The Australian government allowed this to happen. Just shame on them,” Mr Lim told PM
Calls to cut scholarships
Some members of Mr Lim’s community are now calling for the Australian Government to abolish its scholarships to Cambodians on the basis that they are being used to consolidate the future of the one-party state.
The US has placed visa restrictions and asset freezes on several members of Hun Sen’s regime.
Hun Manet is named in a list of potential individuals targeted by future US sanctions.
No such sanctions apply in Australia.
Former foreign minister Julie Bishop raised concerns about Cambodia’s recent election, but stopped short of rejecting the result.
Mr Lim accused the government of taking a “softly softly” approach to Hun Sen’s regime because Australia relies on Cambodia to resettle refugees from an offshore detention centre in Nauru.
The two countries struck a deal in 2014.
At the time, Australia pledged an extra $50 million to Cambodia, but only three refugees have resettled there permanently.
“I think the Australian government has given this regime enough money to be able to say, ‘enough is enough, your antics here, your running amok in Australia is not acceptable’,” Mr Lim said.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade denied that the deal is a “driver of Australia’s approach towards Cambodia”.
A spokesperson said that “all options” are now “under review”, while Australia urges Cambodia to allow “free political debate”.