Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne Payne recently visited four Southeast Asian countries, including Cambodia. Photo: AFP

The recent visit by Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne with Hun Sen is seen by many members of the expatriate Cambodian community in Australia as condoning his undemocratic regime.

Just a few weeks ago, Payne issued a statement marking the 30th anniversary of the 1991 Paris Peace Accords that said: “Australia is deeply concerned by the deterioration in democratic freedoms and growing intolerance towards peacefully expressed dissenting views. This includes the banning of opposition parties, and the arrest and detention of civil-society activists.”

But there were no reports to suggest Payne actually raised these concerns with Cambodia’s leaders during the visit.

While Payne was on her four-nation tour of Southeast Asia that included meeting with Hun Sen, the US government was turning the screws on Cambodia’s leader.

The question is why Payne would want to cozy up to Hun Sen. Was she hoping that he would use his friendship with Beijing to influence China’s policy on to Australia?

If so, she will find that Hun Sen is a master of manipulative, ruthless rule, and that she is no match for him when it comes to reaping the benefits from multilateral engagements.

Ignoring local community issues

It is understandable for oppressed Cambodians to yield to Hun Sen’s threats to survive in that country’s modern patronage system.

As Payne had not attended to building a relationship with her own people – the Cambodian community – over pressing domestic issues, this visit was seen as a betrayal of a segment of the population that holds high expectations of the Australian government.

In fact when it was announced that Payne was to visit Cambodia, I requested that the minister meet with our community.

I followed up the request with the opposition. On November 9, the deputy opposition leader, Senator Kristina Keneally, wrote to Payne, stating: “The advocacy and contribution of Cambodian-Australian communities in Australia are vital…. I urge you and your office to meet with these community groups directly to hear their concerns and explain what steps Australia is taking to support human rights in Cambodia.”

Keneally told Payne that “some Cambodian-Australians have been distressed by this engagement. They have sought that Australia do more to encourage good governance and respect for human rights in Cambodia.”

That request is still outstanding.

Sawathey Ek (seated, second right) with members of the Cambodian community supporting Labor Senator Kristina Keneally in Sydney on October 16, 2021. Photo: Sawathey Ek

Pressing domestic issues

After Asia Times published this opinion piece, I became the target of Cambodia’s so-called students’ representatives in Australia.

A coordinated statement was issued by students’ networks, which can only be described as not promoting Australian values but Hun Sen’s ubiquitous influences, which I forwarded to Canberra, including Payne’s office.

Early this month the assistant secretary of the Counter Foreign Interference Center within the Home Affairs Department wrote: “The information you provided [has] been forwarded to the relevant agencies … due to the sensitive nature of the information, you may not receive any update on any investigation.”

Clearly this visit by Payne has angered some Cambodian members in her electorate. It reminded them of Payne’s silence when Hun Sen threatened to beat up protesters during his attendance at an ASEAN meeting in Sydney in 2018.

A tribute to friends of Cambodia

Last month, the Cambodian Action Group planned to celebrate the Paris Accords by holding an event at Parliament House in Canberra. The event was canceled because of Covid-19 restrictions.

The purpose of the event was to pay a special tribute to friends of Cambodia. Individuals and organizations whose work has left a long-lasting legacy of Australia’s involvement in bringing peace to Cambodia were to be recognized.

One of those organizations is Human Rights Watch (Australia). Its reports of the human-rights situation in Cambodia are often cited as a reliable sources in the federal Parliament.

Proposed parliamentary inquiry

Driven by recent US government actions, including the passing of the Cambodia Democracy Act 2021, and disappointed with Australia’s continued engagement with Hun Sen’s dictatorial regime, the Cambodian Action Group has launched a campaign for a full parliamentary inquiry.

A plaque to be presented to individuals and organizations for their contributions to Cambodia’s 1991 Paris Peace Agreements. Photo: Sawathey Ek

A breakthrough came in September when Australia’s former treasurer and minister of immigration, Chris Bowen, now shadow minister for climate change and energy, officially endorsed the proposal.

In a letter to Payne, Bowen stressed that the proposal was an “important matter,” noting: “An inquiry into the deterioration of Cambodia’s human rights and democracy under Hun Sen will ensure Australia’s legacy in the peace building efforts after the 1991 Paris Peace Accords will continue to be relevant.”

The proposed inquiry would be an opportunity for the Australian Parliament to examine various issues including its foreign policy, trade schemes such as rice imports, and Cambodia’s interference in the affairs of its own diaspora.

Payne’s trip inclusion of Cambodia in her recent Southeast Asian tour is seen as an endorsement the regime’s continued nefarious activities inside Australia. Members of Hun Sen’s networks will use this visit as a sign that Australian politicians respect Cambodia’s dictatorship.

Sawathey Ek is a lawyer based in Sydney.