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Australia’s ‘dance with dictators’: Country expected to stay mum on rights abuses with Asean leaders in town

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (right) and Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop  attend a meeting in Sydney on July 19, 2016. Jessica Hromas/AFP
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (right) and Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop attend a meeting in Sydney on July 19, 2016. Jessica Hromas/AFP

Australia’s ‘dance with dictators’: Country expected to stay mum on rights abuses with Asean leaders in town

While calls from all corners have demanded Australia take Cambodia to task – not only for its political crackdown but also for Prime Minister Hun Sen’s threats to beat up protesters on Australian soil – observers say any such confrontation is unlikely to materialise during a special summit premised on the polite exchange of handshakes and trade.

Prime Minister Hun Sen departed the Kingdom late on Thursday to arrive in Sydney for the special Asean-Australia summit – the first of its kind held on Australian shores – where he is expected to be met with fiery protests.

Members of the Australian-Cambodian community, along with opposition lawmakers, have called on the Australian government to condemn not just the arrest of political leaders, the shuttering of independent media and the shrinking space for freedom of expression, but the violent threats Cambodia’s strongman made to “follow” Australian citizens and “beat” them in their homes.

The threats came during a speech in which Hun Sen warned would-be protesters not to burn his photo – a challenge they almost immediately took up, burning effigies of the premier in Melbourne late last month. Victorian state MP Hong Lim, a Cambodian-Australian, was quick to note the irony of Hun Sen’s violent remarks, made prior to a summit that, in part, will address counter-terrorism.

Human Rights Watch had not just Cambodia, but also Myanmar and the Philippines in its sights – for the suspected genocide of the Rohingya population and the extrajudicial killings carried out in President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs, respectively – when it urged Australia to raise their concerns about human rights violations during the Asean meet.

“Shutting one’s eyes and hoping that closer trade and security ties will somehow magically transform abusive governments into rights-respecting ones doesn’t work,” said HRW Australia Director Elaine Pearson. “The Asean summit shouldn’t just be an opportunity to dance with dictators, but a chance to publicly press them over horrific human rights abuses across the region.”

But with Australia having its own internal battle to ward off Chinese influence, and the growing global concern of Cambodia cosying up with the Asian superpower and shuffling off Western influence, Australia will likely be playing nice to keep Cambodia and other Asean nations – countries considered by Australia as being in their own backyard – on side.

“By tending to ignore Hun Sen’s abuses of power and human rights violations, Australia hopes to get back on Cambodia’s good side,” said Paul Chambers, a Southeast Asia expert at Thailand’s Naresuan University.

“Australia’s position is based increasingly upon the new geopolitics in Southeast Asia which has been increasingly framed by rivalry between China on one side and the US and Japan on the other.”

Australia has failed to publicly condemn the Kingdom even when its own citizens are at risk – not only with the threat to protesters, but in the case of the ongoing detention of Australian filmmaker James Ricketson, who was arrested on “espionage” charges last June.

Sebastian Strangio, author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia, said it would be surprising if Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull gave his Cambodian counterpart a public dressing-down.

“The Turnbull government has adopted a pragmatic foreign policy that eschews the megaphone, and I’d expect any concerns about Hun Sen’s threats towards protesters (or the arrest of James Ricketson) to be expressed safely behind closed doors,” he said in an email.

Indeed, last week, Ricketson slammed Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop over an allegedly tepid letter to her Cambodian counterpart expressing concern about his health during his ongoing detention.

In a letter purportedly penned by Ricketson and posted to a Facebook page advocating for his release, he claimed to have been shown Bishop’s letter by Cambodian officials and said it reassured Cambodia that “Australia had no intention of intervening in my case in any way, that it was up to myself and my legal team to find justice within the Cambodian legal system”.

Ricketson characterised the note as “bureaucratic waffle” and said it amounted to “abandonment”.

Indeed, such a hands-off approach might be in response to the backlash faced by countries like the United States, who have recently issued strong statements condemning Cambodia’s democratic backsliding and even withdrawn aid, drawing accusations of “interference” from the government.

“Publicly denouncing one ASEAN leader for human rights abuses would likely harm Australia’s standing with other ASEAN member-states, who . . . are big fans of ‘non-interference’ in domestic affairs,” Strangio noted. “This is a big occasion for Australia – the first ASEAN meet to take place in the country – so I expect them to play it safe and stick firmly to the inside straight.”

Another undeniable factor at play is Australia’s controversial and expensive refugee deal with the Kingdom, under which just seven refugees came to Cambodia from Australia’s island detention centre on Nauru. Just three – two Syrians and a Rohingya Muslim man – have settled here. Australia last month welcomed almost as many – Kem Ley’s widow and her five sons – from Cambodia after Ley, a political analyst, was murdered in broad daylight in 2016.

“Despite the obvious hypocrisy of the government’s stance, it will not let that get in the way of it continuing to defend its refugee deal with Cambodia, regardless of its history of human rights abuses,” said Refugee Action Coalition’s Ian Rintoul.

“Australia’s treatment of refugees has meant that it long ago ceased to speak out about human rights, particularly in Southeast Asia. Australia has been silent about the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya people from Myanmar and continued relations with Myanmar’s armed forces.”

Lee Morgenbesser, a researcher on authoritarian regimes in Southeast Asia at Australia’s Griffith University, said the Australian government was “unlikely to publicly censure Hun Sen” or any other governments from the region, in part because of the refugee deal.

“What is extremely problematic about Australia’s blossoming relationship with Cambodia is that the federal government has dropped any pretence of supporting the growth of democracy or defence of human rights,” he said in an email.

“Since the refugee resettlement deal is now the cornerstone of Australia’s engagement with the Kingdom, the government has effectively fitted a moral and rhetorical straitjacket to itself. This is indicative of Australia’s stoic contribution to Southeast Asia’s democratic malaise.”

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