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Cambodia's Past and Future

Opening Address to World Khmer Conference, Towards Post-2018 Elections, Dandenong, Victoria, 31 March 2018

It is a great pleasure and privilege for me to address this important international gathering of distinguished Cambodian supporters of democracy, drawn from four continents, and I thank particularly my old friends Hong Lim and Youhorn Chea, and the Cambodian Australian Federation, for their kind invitation to join you. Cambodia is a country engraved in my heart from the time of my first visit there fifty years ago, in 1968 – and always will be engraved in my heart.

I have been incredibly touched by the warmth of the personal response I have had from so many Cambodian people over the years for my own efforts to bring peace, democracy and respect for human rights to the country – but remain terribly saddened and frustrated, as I know you are all too, by how incomplete those efforts have been when it comes to democracy and human rights.

Many of us here will remember the euphoria we felt in May 1993 when, defying the threats and fears of Khmer Rouge bomb attacks on the polling stations, ordinary Cambodians – men, women, children, whole extended families from grannies to babies – lined up at the polling stations in their scores of thousands, fully understanding the risk of violence, but absolutely thrilled at the prospect of peace at last, and the chance to have some say at last in how they lived their lives.

It was certainly one of the proudest moments of my own life. The negotiation of the Peace settlement, formalised in the 1991 Paris Peace Accords, had been something to which Australia made a major contribution. We developed the core idea of an unprecedentedly central role for the United Nations in the transition process – thus giving a face-saving way for China to withdraw its support for the Khmer Rouge, which proved to be the crucial circuit breaker. And we worked hand in glove with Indonesia to draft all the key elements of the final plan, and to ensure its ultimate diplomatic acceptance by all the key national, regional and global players.

When it was finally implemented the UN peace plan did - albeit with some bumps along the way – unquestionably achieve its principal peacemaking aims. It brought to an end a terrible two decades of suffering by the Cambodian people in which the country had been ravaged successively by massive United States bombing during the Vietnam war, by civil war, by a genocidal reign of terror by the Khmer Rouge exceeded only by the Nazis, and by invasion and by civil war again, resulting overall in the deaths of some two million people and the destruction of the lives of many more.

It succeeded in removing the Cambodian conflict as a source of regional tension. It enabled Vietnam to enter into much more productive relations regionally and internationally. The more than 365,000 displaced Cambodians from the Thai border were successfully repatriated. The path was cleared for Cambodia to assume its rightful place in the community of nations. And reconstruction could at last begin. Those gains have all held, and in the years since Cambodia has trodden a for the most part steady path to greater economic prosperity – albeit with a great deal of help from China, and accompanied by staggering levels of corruption in high places.

What, unhappily, we did not succeed in achieving 25 years ago, despite all our hopes, was putting Cambodia on a path to true democracy and respect for human rights. The writing was on the wall in the immediate aftermath of the 1993 election. The clear winner in was, to most people’s surprise, Sihanouk's party, with Hun Sen's party coming second, but Hun Sen absolutely refused to accept this, and an uneasy power-sharing arrangement was eventually adopted. This was a foretaste of things to come, with Hun Sen ever since resisting – with violence as necessary – any serious challenge to his party’s authority, and human rights generally faring no better.

In 1997 a grenade attack on an opposition rally led by Sam Rainsy in March 1997 killed 16 people and injured more than a hundred. That July, after an uneasy period of sharing power with Prince Norodom Ranariddh’s royalist party, Hun Sen launched a bloody coup in which his opponents were exiled, arrested, tortured, and in some cases summarily executed.

While these terrible episodes did generate international condemnation at the time, none of the international reaction was sufficiently sustained or disciplined to be effective in curbing the consolidation of Hun Sen’s autocratic power. Hun Sen still had some political capital from his fight against the Khmer Rouge and his cooperative role in the peace process; Sam Rainsy was regarded as erratic and rather tarnished by his extreme antipathy to Cambodians of Vietnamese origin; and the royalist leader Prince Ranariddh was seen, for better or worse, as feckless. Cambodia-fatigue among policymakers also played a role. It was enough for the international community that the formal trappings of electoral democracy were restored, with nobody too keen to explore the substantive reality underneath. At the time, I wanted to believe that the reverses of 1997 would be temporary, and there were too many like me.

But things got no better in the years that followed, and by early 2014, I could hold my own tongue no longer. In the aftermath of yet more deadly violence against unarmed demonstrators protesting the previous year’s deeply flawed national election, and the shooting dead in Phnom Penh of five striking garment workers while peacefully demanding a minimum liveable wage, I wrote a globally syndicated opinion piece saying, in so many words:

Cambodia’s government has been getting away with murder. Not the kind of genocidal slaughter conducted by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. Nor the scale of killing that has been roiling Syria, or that has put Ukraine, Venezuela, Thailand, and Bangladesh in the global headlines of late. But murder nonetheless, with Cambodian citizens deliberately targeted by their country’s security forces…

I went on to say:

I know Hun Sen and worked well with him in the past. I have resisted strong public criticism until now, because I thought there was hope for both him and his government. But their behaviour has now moved beyond the civilized pale. It is time for Cambodia’s political leaders to be named, shamed, investigated, and sanctioned by the international community.

That remains my position today. It has been amply vindicated by subsequent events, culminating over the last two years in, among many other outrages:

  • the brazen daylight murder of the prominent political activist Kem Lay;
  • the shutting down of Cambodia Daily after being hit with an impossibly large tax bill, the closure of more than a dozen independent radio stations, and systematic harassment of other journalists;
  • the persecution, through legislative constraints and on-the-ground intimidation, of trade unions, environmental and other NGOs and any other channels for organised dissent;
  • the arrest last September of opposition leader Kem Sokha on a grotesquely trumped-up ‘treason’ charge for a speech he had given in Melbourne talking about taking advice from American experts on how to work political change; and
  • most outrageously of all, the use of a compliant Supreme Court last November to ban the main opposition party – the CNRP – and prohibit all of its sitting national assembly members, and a number of other party officials as well from participating in politics for the next five years; with all CNRP seats at all government levels then redistributed to government supporters

Adding insult to all this injury, we have had more and more aggressive targeting by Hun Sen of the Cambodian diaspora, culminating in the bizarre public spectacle, in the run-up to the recent his visit to Sydney for the Australia-ASEAN Summit of him threatening to ‘pursue…and beat up’ any protesters who had the temerity to insult him. But of course he met his match in Hong Lim and his colleagues here in the Australian diaspora: as the New York Times delightfully reported the story, ‘Cambodia’s Ruler Dared Australians to Burn his Effigy, So They Did’!

I have had some interesting personal experience of this kind of intimidation. In 2015, a year after I published my syndicated piece stating – accurately – that ‘Cambodia’s government has been getting away with murder’, I rather incautiously accepted an invitation to address a big conference in Phnom Penh. A message came from Hun Sen’s people asking me to join him on stage at the opening ceremony. Some of the more naïve among the non-Cambodian visitors thought this was a nice gesture of reconciliation, but I knew what was coming, and it came in spades: a withering, brown-glass-eye menacing, finger-pointing denunciation of me and all my works, which went on for some fifteen minutes. While this tirade was deeply alarming for the international participants, the umpteen Cambodian cabinet ministers and officials gathered for the occasion remained supremely indifferent and untroubled. As was I. We had heard it all before.

The trouble is, of course, that while there was not much harm Hun Sen could do to me, that is absolutely not the case for Cambodians living under his autocratic rule; or for expatriates living in Cambodia like the jailed Australian film-maker James Ricketson; or for diaspora Cambodians, who are understandably anxious about the cruel reach of his arm in other ways.

While the disintegration of even a pretence of human-rights-respecting democracy in Cambodia has been generating an increasing amount of international media attention in recent times, the reaction of governments around the region and the wider world has been impossibly limp. With Australia no exception – not surprising given the government anxiety not to rock any boats in the lead up to this month’s ASEAN summit, and above all to try to keep alive its manifestly indefensible, as well as unworkable, Cambodian refugee-dumping program.

There were a handful of very cautious public expressions of concern by Australian ministers at the time of the most egregious misbehaviour – last November’s dissolution of the opposition – but that has been about it. I have been told by high-level government sources that some stern messages were going to be communicated to Hun Sen in his private meetings, and our Prime Minister has said publicly after the Summit that he did express Australia’s concerns, but I have my doubts as to how clearly and strongly that was the case.

It is a tough call in the present regional and wider international environment to identify credible strategies to pull Cambodia back from the brink on which it is indeed now precariously balanced. I know a number of Cambodian activists have placed hopes in a re-energising of the PICC (Paris International Peace Conference) process, given that there are clauses in the key 1991 Agreement documents addressing human rights violations. But, given that the key international players – including the conference co-chairs France and Indonesia – have so many other current preoccupations I don't think there is much realistic chance of anything happening here: even the indefensible ethnic cleansing of and mass violence against Myanmar’s Rohingya has generated only a very muted international response.

Moreover, the language of the Agreements talks only, in the event of violations, of ‘taking appropriate steps’ (Final Act, art 29) or calling upon ‘the competent organs of the United Nations’ to take such steps (Agreement on Sovereignty etc, art 5.4) -- and anyone trying to invoke these clauses would be met with the argument that appropriate steps are already being taken through the reporting mechanisms of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

I am not sure that there is much more that those wanting to secure real democracy in Cambodia in the forthcoming 2018 election and its aftermath can do much more than you are doing: getting the evidence of the regime’s bad behaviour out into the public domain; working hard on governments to communicate the necessary international concerns in unequivocal terms, through all available bilateral, regional and global mechanisms; and keeping alight the flame of hope in your own people.

In the march of history, even in the most apparently hopeless situations, pendulums do swing back, and wheels do turn. As bad as things may seem, it is incredibly important to stay optimistic, because optimism is self-reinforcing and pessimism is self-defeating. Change will never happen unless people believe that what seems to be out of reach is achievable, and I know all of you here have that necessary optimism.

Everything I know about the pride, courage and resilience of the Cambodian people tells me that the overwhelming majority clearly want the restoration of decency and dignity in the way they are governed – so that Cambodia will in fact at last become the country we all wanted it to be when, 25 years ago, we finally put to rest the ravages of genocide and civil war. I have enormous confidence that, with the support and leadership of those of you gathered here at this important conference, that will for decency and dignity, for genuine democracy and genuine respect for human rights, will prevail.