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Cambodian government comes under fire in Australia

Mu Sochua (right) poses with former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans during a forum on Cambodia’s political situation in Canberra on Friday. Facebook
Mu Sochua (right) poses with former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans during a forum on Cambodia’s political situation in Canberra on Friday. Facebook

Cambodian government comes under fire in Australia

The widow of slain political analyst Kem Ley on Sunday called for protesters to join her in demonstrating against Prime Minister Hun Sen when he visits Australia later this week, with exiled opposition figure Mu Sochua telling an audience in Canberra on Friday that it was “not too late” for her party to return and compete in the July national election.

Hun Sen is scheduled to visit Australia in the coming days for an Asean-Australia summit, a visit that has already sparked demonstrations among the Cambodian diaspora there. The premier had previously promised to “beat” any would-be protesters burning his image during the visit, prompting Cambodians both in Australia and the US to burn photos and effigies.

In a short video posted to Facebook on Sunday, Bou Rachana – the widow of revered political analyst Kem Ley who was granted asylum in Australia – added her voice to the calls for protests against Hun Sen.

“I would like to invite Cambodian brothers and sisters in Sydney to do a protest with me on Friday and Saturday,” Rachana said in the clip.

Her husband was killed in a daylight assassination in 2016, widely believed to be politically motivated.

On Friday, speaking at an event titled “Cambodia on the Brink” in Australia’s capital, self-exiled opposition deputy leader Mu Sochua said that if she were Prime Minister Hun Sen, she “would be brave” enough to ask her and her opposition colleagues, self-exiled former leader Sam Rainsy and jailed party head Kem Sokha, to compete in the upcoming election.

“If I were Hun Sen, I would want to be a legit government of my people … or I would want to find a way out with dignity,” she said, adding her party has considered an amnesty law for Hun Sen in the past and may do so again.

Effigies of Hun Sen are burned in Melbourne on Saturday. Cambodia’s Foreign Ministry has called for Australia to guarantee Hun Sen’s ‘dignity’ is respected, despite Hun Sen previously vowing to beat Australian protesters. Facebook
Effigies of Hun Sen are burned in Melbourne on Saturday. Cambodia’s Foreign Ministry has called for Australia to guarantee Hun Sen’s ‘dignity’ is respected, despite Hun Sen previously vowing to beat Australian protesters. Facebook

Sochua’s Cambodia National Rescue Party – the nation’s only viable opposition – was forcibly dissolved in November following Sokha’s arrest amid an ongoing clampdown on dissent that saw independent media outlets shuttered and the space for civil society and freedom of expression shrink.

In Canberra, Sochua suggested “reconciliation” with the ruling party was possible and expressed hopes of resurrecting a “dialogue”.

“And if we were to go, and we hope to compete in 2018, it’s not too late,” she said. “We can go home tomorrow; we can go home in two weeks. But we cannot go home 10 days before the 2018 election.”

Rainsy was permitted to return to Cambodia from a previous stint of self-imposed exile just days before the 2013 election after a stretch in exile.

Sochua went on to call for targeted sanctions that would impact the ruling elite but not disadvantage the Cambodian people.

Sebastian Strangio, author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia, said while it might appear unlikely that the CNRP would be re-established and allowed to compete, it wasn’t impossible.

“So far there's been little indication that Hun Sen will allow a CNRP revival before the election, but in Cambodian politics it's unwise to totally rule anything out,” he said.

Political analyst Ou Virak, meanwhile, said “the potential lack of legitimacy is risky”, and added that Hun Sen might grant a last minute concession “if that would guarantee two things: the CPP will win and there's legitimacy in the outcome”.

“I think he has the motivation to win in the election that would be seen as more legitimate in the eyes of the international community and more importantly the Cambodian people,” he said in a message.

“Also, not giving people a peaceful way to express themselves is not a formula for stability.”

Meanwhile, at Friday’s forum, Professor Gareth Evans – a former Australian foreign minister and a key negotiator of the Paris Peace Agreements that ended Cambodia’s civil war – said the world’s response to the ruling party’s oppression was “impossibly limp”.

“Cambodia’s government has been getting away with murder,” Evans said in a speech, recalling an opinion piece he wrote and published in The Post four years ago. “It is time for Cambodia’s political leaders to be named, shamed, investigated, and sanctioned by the international community. That remains my position today.”

Additional reporting by Niem Chheng

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