Self-exiled former opposition leader Sam Rainsy yesterday called on Australia to help “resuscitate” Cambodian democracy, while also noting that the island nation’s silence on increasing authoritarianism and the incarceration of its own citizens was likely due to its controversial refugee deal with the Kingdom.
Rainsy yesterday told journalists at the National Press Club of Australia that the Kingdom needed Australia and other Western countries to put pressure on Hun Sen’s government to reverse his campaign of political repression.
“The Cambodian people alone cannot resuscitate democracy in their country. Cambodia is too small and too vulnerable a country to be able to determine its own fate, as history has shown,” he said.
“Cambodia is the weak point of the authoritarian bloc in Asia.”
But Rainsy said Australia’s failure to act in this and other spheres was likely due to its costly refugee deal.
In 2014 Australia inked a A$40 million deal for Cambodia to take in its unwanted refugees, who were held on the island detention centre of Nauru. Just seven refugees took up the offer, four of whom have since returned to their home countries.
“I’m afraid because of this refugee issue, Canberra doesn’t want to have any problem with Hun Sen. So Hun Sen feels there is total impunity for him,” Rainsy said.
“It would be very embarrassing to accept refugees from Cambodia when you send refugees to Cambodia,” he added, highlighting the case of slain political analyst Kem Ley’s widow and five children, who are languishing in Thailand reportedly awaiting a visa for Australia.
Around a dozen former Cambodia National Rescue Party members have reportedly fled to Australia and New Zealand to seek asylum, while more than 100 wait in Thailand after party president Kem Sokha was arrested and the CNRP was forcibly dissolved in November.
Rainsy also said he was “surprised” Australia was not doing more to secure the release of filmmaker James Ricketson, who faces up to 10 years in jail after he was arrested on allegations of spying in June. Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop wrote to her Cambodian counterpart regarding his case last week. Ricketson’s emails concerning Rainsy have been under investigation.
“Those emails I received from James were not different from emails I received from other journalists,” he said, adding Ricketson was taken “hostage” in order “to frighten other foreign journalists and deter them from writing critical reports about the Hun Sen regime”.
The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade was unable to respond by press time.
Cambodian People’s Party spokesman Sok Eysan called Rainsy’s comments “ridiculous”, and said there was no need for foreigners to recognise the result of this year’s national election, provided Cambodians did.
“Calling for foreigners including Australia not recognise [the election]—it will not work and no one will listen to him,” Eysan said. He added that a call from the Australian Greens party to ban Hun Sen from coming to Australia in March fell on deaf ears.
Human Rights Watch’s Phil Robertson said Bishop “should be absolutely ashamed of her passive approach in getting [Ricketson] out of jail”, and agreed Australia was “hopelessly compromised” by the refugee deal.
“The CNRP crackdown is just the last drubbing on human rights the Australian human rights policy has suffered because of a bad deal on refugees,” he said.
In his remarks in Australia, Rainsy also slammed Japan for its continuing support for an “electoral farce”. Unlike the US and EU, Japan has not withdrawn its support from Cambodia’s National Election Committee in the wake of the crackdown on the opposition.
“I deplore the fact that Japan continues to support the election process,” Rainsy said.
In response, Embassy of Japan Counsellor Hironori Suzuki said it was “of utmost importance to have this year’s national election reflect the will of Cambodian people”.
“Japan has been encouraging the Cambodian Government to realize the dialogue among domestic political people and ensure that the rights of all people involved in politics and civil society organizations are respected and they can carry out legitimate activities,” he said in an email.
Additional reporting by Mech Dara