Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen doesn’t care if you hate him, Australia, but if you burn effigies of him while he’s in Sydney this weekend he will come to your house and beat you up. This is not hyperbole.
"If you have the right to burn me, we have the right to beat you up. There is nothing wrong with that. I will follow them home and grab them," threatened Cambodia PM Hun Sen ahead of this weekend’s meeting between Australian leaders and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Sydney.
Meanwhile, Hun Sen’s foreign ministry called on Australia to ensure his ‘honour and dignity’ is ‘respected’ while he is in Australia – an attempt to have Australian authorities shut down expected protests against the Cambodian, Myanmar and Philippine delegations.
Hun Sen doesn’t seem like he’ll be swayed too much by official talks from Australia on human rights. “Do not play with Hun Sen, you are still very weak,” he said, speaking about himself in the third person.
'Do not play with Hun Sen, you are still very weak,' he said, speaking about himself in the third person.
The Economist Intelligence Unit Democracy Index 2017 downgraded Cambodia from a ‘hybrid regime’ to an outright ‘authoritarian’ country in February, effectively calling Hun Sen a dictator. Hun Sen wasn’t happy, demanding to know why countries which bomb other countries ranked better, before suggesting that no one besides himself has the power to remove him from leadership.
The Democracy Index made its decision based on the forced closure of critical media, particularly the Cambodia Daily, and intervening in the judicial system to ensure major opposition party Cambodia National Rescue Party would be dismantled.
Hun Sen has been a target for the Cambodian-Australian expat community for decades. They say the prime minister’s unwillingness to embrace democracy is making it difficult for the country to move forward and develop after the dark days of the Khmer Rouge era where an estimated quarter of the population was killed. It’s gotten steadily worse since 2013 when Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party were accused of widespread electoral fraud, which prompted violent demonstrations across the country leading to the deaths of four people.
Hong Lim, a Victorian MP and head of the Australian Cambodian Federation, has been the lead critical voice over the last few years after getting into a series of heated arguments with the prime minister. After calling Hun Sen a ‘Pol Pot figure’– a reference to the notorious Khmer Rouge leader – Hong Lim was banned from returning to his homeland.
Human rights activists are expected to join the expat community protesting restrictions on press freedoms and the suspicious deaths of critics, especially the 2016 suspected assassination of political analyst and activist Kem Ley.
It's time for Cambodia's political leaders to be named, shamed, investigated and sanctioned by the international community.
Australia isn’t taking all of this quietly, but it is in an uncomfortable position. Former foreign minister Gareth Evans has called on the Government to do more. "It's time for Cambodia's political leaders to be named, shamed, investigated and sanctioned by the international community," he said at a pre-Summit address.
It’s a difficult time for Australia, where the family of murdered political analyst Kem Ley has been granted asylum. The move raised eyebrows in Cambodia and Australia with an expensive resettlement agreement between the two countries still in place. The $40 million program has had just three asylum seekers permanently placed in Cambodia and is widely seen as a bust.
For democracy-loving Cambodians forced into the shadows by the Hun Sen regime, how Australia approaches human rights concerns at the summit could be the best hope for a free and peaceful future.