Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (L) with his West Point-trained son Hun Manet, who many think is being groomed to take over from his father some time after the July 29 elections. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, left, with his West Point-trained son Hun Manet, who is being groomed to take over. Photo: AFP / Tang Chhin Sothy

December 2018 marked the end of a landmark year for Australian-Cambodian relations. Cambodia’s government has been engaged in diverse business and political activities on Australian soil since 2015 but they reached a zenith in 2018, just before the Southeast Asian country’s prime minister, Hun Sen, unveiled a huge statue marking 20 years as ruler. 

Diplomatic relations with Cambodia were formally on the agenda of the 48th National Conference of the Australian Labor Party, which was held for the first time in Adelaide. The conference was attended by over 2,000 Labor Party delegates from across the country.

Julian Hill, a Labour MP for Victoria, called on his party conference to support a resolution requesting that the next federal Labor government end Canberra’s tolerance of increasingly controversial Cambodian government-backed activities in Australia. Hill’s website says that he has evidence of Cambodian links to illegal activities such as money laundering and drug dealing.  

Meanwhile, there is ample evidence that the Cambodian prime minister’s son, Hun Manet, has been building a support network across Australia that links university students and business people with his father’s political party since 2015. Hun Manet, whom observers believe is being groomed by his father to be Cambodia’s next prime minister, signed up hundreds of supporters after giving out free gifts and inviting expats to a lavish dinner and reception.

Like all the sons of the Cambodian leader, who has controlled the country for 33 years, he is western educated – he is a West Point graduate with a PhD from Bristol University. Hun Manet arrived in Australia in October 2016 with a huge entourage, and he has been busy building support for his father ’s political party through universities and expatriate community groups ever since.

Hun Manet’s mission is to create a Cambodian political network in Australia by recruiting students and businesses

Hun Manet’s mission is to create a Cambodian political network in Australia by recruiting students and businesses. He is internationalizing authoritarianism by strengthening his father’s patronage system abroad.

Hill told the Labor Party Conference delegates how the Cambodian regime has become steadily more dictatorial since it banned all opposition parties in November 2017, leading to it winning every single seat in the spring 2018 general election. Hill’s conference resolution explained how a series of moves by the Cambodian government has resulted in the European Parliament declaring Cambodia an “authoritarian state.” 

The Labor Party Conference motion gave many expatriate Cambodians hope that under a different government, Australia would be far more likely to take a tougher stand against a raft of controversial and possibly illegal Phnom Penhbacked activities that are alleged to be taking place. 

Hun Manet’s mission is to build a surveillance network that would see parts of Australia and New Zealand being divided up for de facto administration by Cambodia’s generals, who aim to exert control over students and to influence other members of the diaspora during intermittent visits to the country. The aim is to reinforce the regime back home by securing expatriate support.

Cambodian civil war

Hun Sen ended the civil war in Cambodia by allowing Khmer Rouge diehards to keep their military positions and private property. The Cambodian government uses patronage of students attending Western institutions to foster allegiance and thereby strengthen itself. Once students return home, the cycle of dictatorship continues with more educated people joining the elite, while those excluded remain in the grip of generational poverty.

Hun Manet began his political recruitment drive by focusing on university students living in eastern and southern Australian states. He recruited members by giving away embossed caps, shirts and scarves. Each item features a Buddhist angel logo, which is intended to associate his father’s party with acts of humanitarian charity,  bringing blessings and prosperity.  

Around 600 recruits are reported  to have been successfully signed up in Sydney, following a lavish dinner and  reception there which celebrated  building  the “force” and featured the theme “reunion of a happy family.” Hun Manet is reported to have electrified his new followers by saying: “We [will] create a force. In the beginning, we had Australia then New Zealand.”

Evidence of political recruitment of students by Hun Manet was recently aired on Australian media and has attracted criticism. Cambodia’s ambassador, Koy Kuong,  was previously the subject of a probe by Australian authorities into duty-free imports.

Hun Manet makes it sound like Cambodia will never move beyond the Cold War, by emphasizing the threat of another civil war breaking out in his country. Is Cambodia under Hun Sen so poor that its regime can afford to travel around the world and hand out free uniforms and “free fringe benefits” to recruit more members while the United Nations and other organizations continue to support Cambodians back home?

This activity is a threat to Australia’s international security and undermines the fundamental values of multiculturalism, which has been built on “inclusive acceptance of each other’s differences” for the sake of a harmonious society. 

Australia must counter Hun Manet’s activities by imposing targeted sanctions and barring Cambodia’s generals from entering Australia. 

Sawathey Ek

Sawathey Ek is a lawyer based in Sydney.

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