A report early this month in US media lent credence to rumors that for the last two decades Cambodia’s leader, Hun Sen, has been paying foreign diplomats who served in Cambodia as his advisers to “cooperate and engage” with the international community and the United Nations.
News that Doug Ericksen, a Washington state senator, had been put on Cambodia’s payroll, reportedly to the tune of US$500,000 annually, should cause international furore, particularly for foreign-aid donors like Australia, Japan and the European Union that continue to treat Cambodia as an impoverished nation worthy of their support.
As Cambodia receives foreign aid to help improve the lot of its impoverished people, the Hun Sen regime sees it as its right to pay foreigners to “give advice to improve” relations with the West for “peace and economic prosperity.”
Donor countries and the international community have a moral responsibility to condemn the regime for its efforts to plunder the kingdom’s wealth.
Rumors about Ericksen aroused suspicions as he was one of the “international observers” during the national election in 2018, after which, as described by The Seattle Times, projected “a surprisingly rosy view of the recent election in Cambodia, which the US government and many others have condemned as unfair and undemocratic.”
Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia Division at Human Rights Watch, called out legislators who “have put their hand up to serve as cogs in Hun Sen’s propaganda machine.… Their presence here shows they hold in contempt the principles of free and fair elections, an independent media, and a neutral election administration – because all those things are lacking in Hun Sen’s Cambodia.”
Lesson for Australia
In 2018 Australia passed the landmark National Security (Espionage and Foreign Interference) Act. Strong community concern had demanded that lawmakers take action in the aftermath of a scandal that claimed the political career of a senator linked to a Chinese businessman.
While the Australian law does not target Chinese nationals – it aims to criminalize covert, deceptive or threatening actions that are intended to interfere with democratic processes or provide intelligence to overseas governments – nonetheless recent actions by the federal government point to a different motive.
A Chinese billionaire became the first casualty as his Australian citizenship application was denied and was banned entry to Australia, despite being a longtime resident in Sydney.
However, implementation of this law across the board is yet to apply to members of the Cambodian regime, who fly in and fly out of Australia to promote political recruitment among students and members of the diaspora community – legitimized and participated in by Cambodia’s ambassador in Canberra.
Foreign interference takes different forms, besides contributing political donations and accepting payment from leaders such as Hun Sen. As laws became more stringent, so does the strategy of anti-human-rights networks that seek to exploit the loopholes. Contributions to local charity organizations and holding “dodgy community fundraising events organized by … goons” is an effective strategy aimed at gaining access to local politicians to legitimize their connections and popularity.
Hun Sen’s investment in these foreign politicians and diplomats has resulted in his status as a strongman. That strategy culminated with his draconian reign of terror.
In Hun Sen’s Cambodia, money, power and status are used as means to terrorize impoverished people by those helping to gloss over the regime’s crimes under the pretext of peace and prosperity, resulting in foreign aid achieving harmful rather than meaningful effects.
Australia slashes aid to Cambodia
In a surprise move early this month, Australian aid to Cambodia was slashed from A$53 million to A$43 million (US$30.2 million) for the 2019-20 fiscal year according to the federal budget announcement by Treasurer Josh Frydenberg.
Local Cambodian diaspora groups have lobbied the Australian government to remove or restrict foreign aid to Cambodia until the Hun Sen regime implements human rights under the 1991 Paris Peace Accords.
While Pacific nations had their aid retained, Cambodia and Pakistan were affected by the budget announcement. Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said in a statement that the budget was about “advancing Australia’s national interests by protecting our security and prosperity.”
Another area that should be reviewed by Australia and other donor countries is educational aid, for foreign-funded education has not given Cambodian students the opportunity to apply their “leadership skills” as claimed by most Western countries helping Cambodia.
Students educated in countries such as Australia have not been able to put their skills to good use, as patronage becomes a criterion – with the exception of those students working for a few private corporations. Students are being used to help the system that their scholarship was supposed to help eradicate – the very regime that deprived them of education in the first place.
Besides misspending Cambodia’s wealth on foreign politicians, Freedom House recently noted, “The prime minister has his own mobile application, encourages social media use amongst civil servants, and livestreams events and speeches on both official government websites and on Facebook, where he has more than 10 million followers. The apparent popularity of Hun Sen on Facebook has prompted questions about government manipulation of online content, potentially facilitated by public funds.”
The international community including Australia have an obligation to combat authoritarianism as much as terrorism, especially when a regime like Hun Sen’s openly pays foreign politicians to do their dirty diplomatic work as part of a strategy to present a rosy image to the world, while at the same time threatening its citizens with civil war and issuing a declaration for the army to crush political opponents against the banned opposition – of which reinstatement has been demanded by the European Parliament.