After Hun Sen’s self-declared victory in the recent national elections, branded by the US as “flawed” with the recent passage of the Cambodia Democracy Act, and with the US already ordering sanctions against the regime, other countries have yet to move past statements into actions.
It is this kind of inconsistent messaging by the international community for the last 27 years that has seen the rise of a kleptocratic leadership in Cambodia.
This week in Australia, two opposition lawmakers, Julian Hill MP and Senator Lisa Singh, reminded Parliament of Hun Sen’s threat against his people that if he lost the July election, there would be “civil war.” Both parliamentarians further took up the call by the Cambodian-Australian community to take measures against Hun Sen similar to those of the US. Australia now should take the lead to reconvene the United Nations pursuant to the Paris Peace Accords of 1991.
It is a crime for one citizen to threaten another. Were a leader to threaten war with a neighbor, his belligerent conduct would call for international sanction. But when a leader threatens civil war against his own people, international jurists are yet to find a crime befitting this threat.
Politically speaking, Australia has not taken any actions against Cambodia, though there have been abundant statements. Although Foreign Minister Julie Bishop spoke on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation network in Singapore during the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting on August 2 saying the Cambodian election was not “free and open,” these words were not reflected in a motion passed in the Australian Senate on August 14.
The motion also failed to carry condemnatory language that is likely to see Australia impose sanctions on Cambodia similar to those of its partner the US. This motion is actually weaker than the one passed in the Senate on June 25, noting that an election that excluded the main opposition would not be free or legitimate.
The significance of the August 14 motion is the reference to allegations of money-laundering in Australia by members of Hun Sen’s regime. Such information only surfaced after damaging public broadcasts by Al Jazeera and ABC’s Four Corners current-affairs program. Both programs revealed the extent to which Hun Sen and his network have allegedly been using Australia not only as a source for money-laundering, but also as a place of radicalization among students from Cambodia and the diaspora groups on Australian soil.
For the last 25 years Hun Sen has taken advantage of soft diplomacy approaches and built up Cambodia as an oligarchy. In light of his total disregard of the motions passed in the Australian Senate, and the lack of action taken against his regime, Australia will continue to legitimize this ruthless kleptocratic leader.
For too long the international community has allowed Hun Sen to violate human rights, including land grabbing and destruction of democratic institutions established under the Paris Peace Accords of 1991. The Accords were central to the establishment of a modern Cambodia. Further, the Accords marked a landmark momentum in the modern era of the UN peacekeeping mission since the end of World War II.
Of great significance to peace and stability in Cambodia is the core prohibition in Clause 1 of the Accords, that the policies and practices of past human-rights violations “shall never be allowed to return.”
In fact those words captured the sentiments of the late British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, who 30 years ago made a historic visit to a Cambodian refugee camp on the Thai border. Upon her return in December 1988, in an interview with Caron Keating, she recounted the suffering of Cambodian refugees:
“Everyone, having suffered under Pol Pot … we saw some terrible pictures and accounts of the atrocities at home, and I think we were all perturbed that we couldn’t do something about it, and the United Nations couldn’t do anything about it. They want to know, before they go home, that they’re never going to be subjected to that again.”
After three decades of international efforts that helped to secure Cambodia from an illegitimate Communist regime led by Heng Samrin and Hun Sen and backed by Vietnam and the Soviet Union in 1979, to a democratic multi-party state from 1993 up to 2017, every Cambodian and the international community are rightly entitled to be outraged as Cambodia once again reverts to dictatorship. Under Hun Sen, Cambodia has been a combination of communism, dictatorship, plutocracy and oligarchy.
Cambodia is a plutocratic state that exists to serve Hun Sen, his family and his loyal tycoons. It is a country that caters to any corporations and countries that would deliver wealth to the ruling elite at the expense of its own people.
Despite Hun Sen’s documented illicit conduct, the international community and the UN have failed to enforce coercive measures. Unlike other nations in the region, the UN invested heavily in Cambodia to create a free society after the genocide period that saw regional instability during the Cold War.
Since World War II, no other country has enjoyed the international community’s protection and privilege as Cambodia has. Therefore, given that Hun Sen is still in power after signing international treaties, he has both legal and moral obligations to Cambodians and the international community.
In this regard, the international community must reject Hun Sen’s leadership with reference to other Asian values in the region. After all, no other countries in the region underwent a period of genocide as Cambodia did.
The level of expectation for Hun Sen to respect and implement basic principles of human rights and democracy is higher than for any other country. He has the obligation to ensure that a Cambodia free from communism must not revert to authoritarianism or dictatorship.
As Cambodia is now under a state of kleptocracy, the international community must act before we see Chinese tanks and artillery being paraded on the streets of Phnom Penh.