With Prime Minister Hun Sen expected to visit Sydney for an Asean leaders’ summit just months before next year’s national election, an outspoken Cambodian-Australian politician yesterday vowed that he would be greeted with protests upon arrival.
Hong Lim, a member of the state of Victoria’s legislative assembly who Hun Sen’s government banned last year from returning to Cambodia after he called the regime “beastly”, said the expected visit for the March summit should not be a public-relations coup for the premier.
“It will be in Sydney, and we will be organising protests against Hun Sen, of course,” said Lim, who represents an electorate in the outer suburbs of Melbourne home to many Cambodians, and who has frequently criticised Hun Sen’s human rights record.
“I understand the Australian government will be inviting all the heads of Asean . . . not Hun Sen specifically,” Lim added, saying the trip should not be seen as an Australian endorsement of Hun Sen.
The summit, coming only four months before the July 2018 election, will come at a tense time, with the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party expected to provide the strongest challenge to Hun Sen’s power since he became prime minister 32 years ago.
There are about 30,000 Cambodian-born Australians, according to government statistics, with the majority in Melbourne and Sydney. Many fled Cambodia during the 1970s and 1980s civil war and, like much of the diaspora, tend to support Cambodia’s opposition.
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who attended the last Asean summit in November in Laos, in February invited the leaders of the Southeast Asian regional bloc’s 10 countries to the summit in Sydney, which will be the first Australia has hosted.
“The summit is an historic and unprecedented opportunity to strengthen Australia’s strategic partnership with ASEAN and deliver tangible economic and security benefits to Australia,” Turnbull said in a press statement announcing the summit.
According to the statement, the summit will also feature meetings on counter-terrorism and business relations.
Sok Eysan, spokesman for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, said he expected Hun Sen to attend the Sydney summit, as he had other summits, like former United States President Barack Obama’s special Asean summit in California in February 2016.
“When it’s at the world level, he always participates,” Eysan said, adding Hun Sen would not be worried by a repeat of the protests he faced from Cambodian-Americans. “It’s normal for a democratic country. Even Donald Trump, people protest against him.”
Hun Sen’s 2016 trip to the US was roundly criticised by rights groups, with Human Rights Watch slamming the Asean summit as an event helping to legitimise a leader “who carried out a coup in 1997 and has ruled abusively in Cambodia for over 30 years”.
Hun Sen at the time threatened more counter-protests in Cambodia if he faced rowdy demonstrations in the US – four months after his bodyguards severely beat two CNRP lawmakers outside the National Assembly during one such counter-protest while he was in Paris.
A spokesperson for Turnbull’s office yesterday declined to comment on the trip. Cambodia’s ambassador to Australia, Koy Kuong, also declined to comment and Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Chum Sounry did not respond to requests for comment.
Hun Manet, the eldest son of Hun Sen and the director of the Ministry of Defence’s Department of Counter-Terrorism, declined to comment on whether he would visit Sydney alongside his father to attend the counter-terrorism portion of the Asean summit.
The CPP has in recent years made efforts to reach out to the Cambodian diaspora, and in 2015 appointed Manet as head of a new special committee to win back their support from the CNRP, which remains largely financed by Cambodians who live overseas.
Kim Santepheap, an undersecretary of state at the Justice Ministry and a close associate of Manet who also heads the CPP’s “working group” for Australia and New Zealand, has since last Friday been in Australia visiting the Cambodian community alongside Kuong, the ambassador, as part of that effort. Santepheap yesterday also declined to comment on Hun Sen’s expected trip to Sydney in March.