05 Dec MPs urge tough Cambodia line
MPs urge tough Cambodia line – Sydney Morning Herald – Thursday 5 December 2019
Australian MPs from both major parties have united to condemn Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen in the wake of the dictator’s political opponent being put on trial for widely criticised treason charges.
Liberal and Labor politicians have also sounded the alarm on Chinese influence in the south-east Asian nation, including a planned military build up in the beach town of Sihanoukville.
A Cambodian court this week sent Opposition Leader Kem Sokha’s case to trial, after he was arrested in 2017 and his party banned ahead of an election last year that was condemned by the international community.
Monovithya Kem, the exiled daughter of Mr Sokha and herself a major opposition figure, said the Australian government could do much more to pressure the Cambodian government.
“Targeted individual sanctions should happen immediately and only be lifted the day that Cambodia holds free, fair elections,” she told The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.
The European Union last month gave a one-month deadline for Hun Sen to explain what he will do to address human rights violations, while the United States Congress is also considering how to respond.
Labor MP Julian Hill said the Cambodian Prime Minister was running a “gangster regime” and Australia needed to change its approach.
“Putting the Opposition Leader on trial for treason? I mean seriously,” Mr Hill said.
“The Australian Government has to stop sucking up to Hun Sen and rethink our approach.
“It’s way past time that Australia consider tougher measures such as visa bans and asset freezes for senior members of this odious regime.”
Mr Hill said he would now push for a parliamentary inquiry into Cambodia through the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade.
Liberal Senator James Paterson said the charges against Mr Sokha were further evidence that Cambodia was flouting democratic norms.
“Julian Hill and I are unlikely allies. We are from opposite ends of opposing political parties,” Senator Paterson said.
“While not endorsing all of his suggestions, I share his concern about the apparent backsliding on democracy and individual freedoms in Cambodia, particularly the treatment of opposition figures and the suppression of dissenting voices.
“Chinese Communist Party influence in Cambodia appears to be far from benign. Reports of a possible Chinese naval base are very troubling, particularly as it could undermine the sovereignty of countries in the region.”
Labor Senator Kimberley Kitching said Australia should consider “Magnitsky-style” legislation based on laws passed in the United States and Britain which impose sanctions on people who commit gross human rights violations.
“Standing by while those with links to authoritarian regimes bully local diasporas is unacceptable and a total anathema to our principles,” Senator Kitching said.
Human Rights Watch Asia Deputy Director Phil Robertson said Australia’s response to the erosion of Cambodia’s democracy was “one of the worst” of like-minded governments such as the US and EU.
“They have continued to act like they are some sort of alternative to China, that somehow they are the reasonable people that Cambodia can talk to as opposed to the US or EU,” he said.
“What they are really doing is selling their influence short. We have seen this time and again with the Matthew Ricketson case, the refugee dumping deal, the refusal to raise major human rights issues with the powers that be in Cambodia.”
Following the arrests, bans and exiling of major opposition figures in late 2017, Hun Sen won all 125 seats in the June 2018 elections in Cambodia.
Australia’s response at the time to what were neither free nor fair elections – the main opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party could not stand – was, relative to other nations including the EU and US, muted.
Now, Mr Robertson said, it “should be all hands on deck to try to save democracy in Cambodia, but for Canberra it’s business as usual”.
Hun Sen’s regime has until December 12 to respond to a preliminary EU report that could strip Cambodia of its trade preferences because of concerns over human rights abuses.
The EU will make a final decision on whether to axe Cambodia’s access to trade privileges on February 12, 2020. Ending Cambodia’s preferential access to the EU market under the “everything but arms” (EBA) trade status would be a big blow to the country’s economy.
Mr Robertson said he was sure that one of the conditions the EU was placing on Cambodia to keep the EBA privileges included “the unconditional release of Kem Sokha and the dropping of charges”.
“Instead, Hun Sen is saying we will take it to trial, that is a thumb in the eye of the EU,” he said.