A spirited debate on human rights in Cambodia was heard in the Australian parliament this week after an opposition Labor Party MP introduced a motion calling on the government to condemn state violence against striking garment workers and ask authorities to release detained protesters.
Clare O’Neil, who represents more than 2,000 Cambodian-Australians in her Victoria electorate, on Monday accused Foreign Minister Julie Bishop of being “conspicuously silent” on rights abuses during a visit to Phnom Penh last month.
“She has failed to mention these terrible abuses on her visit to Cambodia, focusing instead on negotiating a new asylum-seeker agreement,” she said. “And it does make one wonder: Is the silence strategic? What else could possibly explain turning a blind eye to this conduct?”
Earlier this week, Bishop – in response to a scathing opinion piece by former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans – said she had raised human rights in meetings with Prime Minister Hun Sen, Foreign Minister Hor Namhong and Interior Minister Sar Kheng.
A number of lawmakers supported O’Neil’s call in front of monks and other members of the local Cambodian community who attended parliament.
“It does not give a good impression, despite all these alleged nice little comments in back rooms about how concerned they are about human rights in Cambodia, that in the same meetings they say that Cambodia is a suitable settlement place for refugees,” said Labor MP Laurie Ferguson, who labeled the human rights situation as “disgraceful”.
Others, however, painted a more nuanced picture.
“It is easy in Australia for us to look at [garment factories] as places of exploitation to be condemned, but from what I could see [during a visit to Cambodia], those factories were supplying employment and a regular income to many people who had been displaced from rural Cambodia,” National Party MP Mark Coulton said.
But ahead of a looming strike in the sector, the message from some politicians was clear.
“Everyone deserves a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work … we want to support you, not exploit you,” opposition whip Jill Hall said.