Cambodian-Australians demonstrate in Sydney on September 15, 2018. Photo: Sawathey Ek
Cambodian-Australians demonstrate in Sydney on September 15, 2018. Photo: Sawathey Ek

The recent announcement by Singapore of the introduction of a bill to combat foreign interference online coincides with a hearing recently held by the Joint Parliamentary Subcommittee on Foreign Affairs, Defense and Trade of the Australian Federal Parliament.

For the first time, the committee provided special status for a “Cambodian Diaspora Session,” which heard evidence from members of the community on September 13.

I was one of six witnesses to give evidence before the committee on the human-rights situation in Cambodia and activities carried out in Australia by Cambodia’s ruling regime.

An opinion piece I wrote on the subject was referred to the committee.

Referring to the threat of influence by networks based in Cambodia, Australian political reporter Lisa Visentin wrote: “The peak body for Australia’s universities, which is assisting the federal government in drafting new foreign interference guidelines, says it is unsure which countries besides China are potentially targeting students or exerting undue influence on campuses.

“Hun Sen’s network has been able to divide and disrupt our community harmony without scrutiny by the media or the government.”

A relevant part of my opinion was further noted by Visentin: “Many students were recruited before they left Cambodia to study in Australia. In 2016, there was a mass recruitment drive involving at least 600 people in Sydney.”

The question is, what is in it for the Hun Sen government to interfere with community activities in Australia? And why has the Australian government neglected the Cambodian diaspora community?

The neglect

The issue of foreign interference in Australia has always been linked to Chinese political donations and within tertiary sectors. Yet interference by Hun Sen’s regime in the expat Cambodian community was never on the national agenda, despite some members of the opposition such as Julian Hill raising it.

Hill said in a parliamentary speech in 2018 that the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) “has divided Australia and New Zealand into regions and has front groups overseen by key people in most Australian capital cities.”

Again as recently as March this year, another member of the opposition, Chris Hayes, was vocal on the issue. Hayes said in regard to a motion before Parliament: “We now see, as has been spoken about, foreign interference from the Hun Sen government even being played out here in our university campuses, business and charities, where support bases have been actively built for this Cambodian dictator.”

Unlike alleged influence by the Communist Party of China (CPC), Cambodia’s ruling party seeks influence at the grassroots community level – at least for the time being.

Understandably, national debates and media coverage in Australia focus on the CPC’s influence, whereas the interference by Cambodia’s networks within the community is not considered to be a “national interest.”

The lack of action by the Australian government toward the local Cambodian diaspora is a national disgrace, especially for many of us who survived the genocidal regime and fled the oppressive leadership of Hun Sen.

In fact I wrote an article for Asia Times in 2019 titled “Foreign interference bought Hun Sen’s legitimacy,” highlighting Canberra’s fixation on China while neglecting local communities such as the Cambodian diaspora.

Besides members of the opposition and a small party like The Greens, Hun Sen’s activities in the community were of little concern for the Australian government.

In March during a parliamentary motion, Julie Owens MP highlighted the means of influence by Cambodia on students. Owens reminded Parliament: “We’ve been hearing for a couple of years now about attempts by the Cambodian People’s Party to coerce students in Australia into supporting the party back in Cambodia.”

Owen further detailed the means of influences by Cambodian networks: “We hear about financial inducements, threats and threats against family at home – any way they can find to ensure that students in Australia, residents in Australia and citizens of Australia do not speak out against the government of Cambodia.”

The harm of interference at community level

In 2019, when informed of the activities of Cambodia’s ambassador to Australia, a representative of the Australian government responded in the Senate: “The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is aware that allegations have been made by some in the Cambodian community.…

“The department has conveyed to the Royal Embassy of Cambodia its expectation that all diplomatic representatives in Australia will conduct themselves professionally and appropriately in accordance with the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and respect Australia’s free and open democratic society.”

The neglect by the Australian government has allowed Hun Sen’s networks to divide and disrupt the harmony of the Cambodian expat community.

The Cambodian community has contributed to Australia’s multicultural society in various ways, including building of community organizations, language schools and temples, and provision of services to ordinary members.

But the damage inflicted by interference in the community has caused anxiety and distressed members.

It is now a depressed and divided community as members and families no longer trust one another, fearing that one among us could be a proxy for Cambodia’s dictatorship.

Yet there is absolutely no accountability and scrutiny by the Australian government to defend a vulnerable and defenseless community.

Silence an endorsement by the government

The Australian government’s lack of interest in defending the diaspora from the tentacles of Cambodia’s dictators will go down in history as a disgrace. Survivors of Cambodia’s past horrors feel dishonored by the silence of the Australian Liberal Government. No words or actions were taken to defend survivors of the genocidal regime under Pol Pot or the oppressive dictatorship of Cambodia’s current ruler.

That failure on the part of the government is seen as an endorsement of tolerance and a license for Cambodia’s network to strengthen its influence in the community further.

The motive for influence at the community level is an attempt to normalize and showcase the dictatorship in Cambodia in Western eyes.

Misguided foreign interference laws

Australia’s foreign interference laws have been the subject of criticism by local ex-politicians. Former foreign minister Gareth Evans has even called for the laws to be scrapped.

Under the existing scheme, affected diaspora groups such as Cambodians do not benefit from and receive no protection under these laws. The laws require disclosure or registration of interest by Australians when engaging with an institution that is likely to serve foreign interests.

However, interference at community level by foreign networks serves to disturb the peace and harmony of the community. This is far more dangerous than politicians speaking at an event or engaging with an organization deemed to have links with foreign interests.

Unless the Australian government reviews the existing legislation, Hun Sen’s influence in Australia will see a section of the Cambodian community become one that pays homage to a dictatorship overseas. This in turn will pose a further challenge to Australia’s claim to be a country that promotes inclusion and multicultural values.

In light of Singapore’s proposal to adopt a law to combat foreign interference, this is an opportunity for Australia to examine whether certain aspects of such legislation can be used as a model to review its own foreign-interference laws.

Sawathey Ek is a lawyer and human-rights advocate.