An Asean special summit with Australia wrapped up on Sunday, with regional leaders declaring a “new era” of increasingly close relations, following two days of protests in Sydney against the rule of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
An estimated 300 protesters gathered on Friday, the majority of them from the Cambodian-Australian community, carrying signs calling for the release of jailed opposition leader Kem Sokha.
A separate protest on Saturday was held at the Sydney Town Hall with members of the Cambodian, Vietnamese, Laotian, Filipino and Rohingya communities to jointly demonstrate against human rights abuses in Asean.
On Friday, Bou Rachana, the widow of slain analyst Kem Ley, who has relocated with her family to Melbourne, thanked the Hyde Park protesters for their support. Several monks chanted a prayer in Pali before a moment of silence was held to remember figures widely believed to be victims of political assassinations in Cambodia, including Kem Ley.
One monk, Venerable Nou Sorng, pleaded with the Australian government to urge Hun Sen to respect human rights.
“Hun Sen always takes his own people as hostage . . . using violence, intimidating them,” he said.
In the lead-up to the summit, the premier had pledged to follow home and “beat” Sydney protesters who dared to burn his photograph in the streets.
On Friday, he mingled with a friendly crowd, meeting with Cambodian-Australian supporters in Sydney, shaking hands and posing for selfies. He announced to the supporters that he had met with Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull, who had pledged financial assistance to Cambodia.
A spokesman from the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said the country’s development assistance to Cambodia “has not changed” and remains at A$87.4 million for the 2017-2018 financial year.
The aid is at odds with demands from opposition politicians and rights groups, both from Australia and Cambodia, who have repeatedly urged Prime Minister Turnbull to take Cambodia to task for its widespread crackdown on political opposition, independent journalism and civil society.
While the issue of human rights and democracy was reportedly raised by Turnbull at a private meeting with Hun Sen, details of that meeting were scarce as of press time.
“It was no doubt pressure from the Cambodia diaspora in Australia that led Prime Minister Turnbull to raise the issue with Hun Sen,” said Carlyle Thayer, a regional security expert at the University of New South Wales, in an email, adding that the public comments from Foreign Minister Julie Bishop have thus far been “underwhelming”.
“The mass rally against Hun Sen and his dismantlement of Cambodia’s system of liberal multiparty democracy has drawn public attention to this issue and it is unlikely to die down,” he said.
In a speech on Friday at the protest, Human Rights Watch Australia Director Elaine Pearson said Hun Sen had, for three decades, “repeatedly used political violence, intimidation and corruption to stay in power”.
“This latest cycle of violence and repression is especially fierce,” she said. “Do not embolden Hun Sen to crack down harder on his people because he sees there is no cost to these actions.
“While the Australian government may try and airbrush human rights issues out of the summit, Australians stand in solidarity with the people of Cambodia and we will speak out against Hun Sen’s ongoing crushing of dissent.”
Inside the summit, the Asean bloc and Australia signed a MoU agreeing to work together to enact “best practice counter-terrorism legislation”, and to conduct regional workshops on using electronic evidence to prosecute terrorism cases and to combat online radicalisation, among other items.
A statement was also released calling for non-militarisation of the South China Sea, a divisive standoff within the region, over which Cambodia has often been a thorn in the side of Asean unity on behalf of China.
They also pledged to “intensify efforts in 2018” to conclude a regional free trade agreement, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, involving the 10 Asean member countries and Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand.
Additional reporting by Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon