Australia silent as Cambodia's Hun Sen deals final blow to democracy
February 22 2017
Bangkok: Twenty per cent of Cambodians live in poverty. Forty-two per cent of children under five years old are malnourished and stunted. More than half of Cambodians lack access to toilets and sanitation.
For three decades Hun Sen has ruled Cambodia with the tacit backing of foreign countries sympathetic to the leader of a nation emerging from genocide and civil war.
Australia has long being at the forefront of a donor-nation generosity that has seen billions of dollars pour in to help Cambodia's 16 million people.
Since 2014 in particular Australia has showered diplomatic praise and an additional $40 million on Hun Sen and his ministers in return for Cambodia accepting what has turned out to be only a handful of refugees from Nauru.
Canberra is sending $90 million of taxpayers' money to the country this financial year alone to contribute to what the Department of Foreign Affairs claims will be the country's "greater prosperity".
But the reality is very different.
Prime Minister Hun Sen has remained in power beyond the time of any of the world's democratic leaders through use of politically motivated violence, control of security forces and the courts, and massive corruption.
Still to this day, I am haunted by the image of a pretty young girl sitting in shock amid the blood and debris of a grenade attack on an anti-government rally in a park across from the Royal Palace on March 30, 1997, in which 16 people were killed and 120 injured.
The girl was smiling, unaware of the calamity around her.
I looked down and saw she had no legs. She died on the way to hospital.
The level of corruption in the country that Australia's Coalition government has made one of its closet allies in Asia – for political gain at home – is staggering.
Hun Sen has amassed mansions and is protected by his own army with a national network of spies and informers intended to frighten and intimidate Cambodians.
Gareth Evans, the former foreign minister and architect of the Paris Peace Accords that ended Cambodia's war in the 1990s, has said there are stories, unverifiable but plausible, that 20 or more of Hun Sen's closest associates have each amassed more than $1 billion through misappropriation of state assets, illegal economic activity and favouritism in state procurement and contracting.
For years, Australia and other nations have supported what were portrayed as democratic elections every five years.
But they were manipulated, sometimes amid violence.
Hun Sen has ruled a sham democracy since 1993 when he lost a UN-administered election but refused to accept the result, instead threatening violence through a fake secession movement and seizing power.
Too often foreign donor-nations like Australia have looked away or persuaded themselves that Hun Sen's ruthlessness wasn't so bad. He was, after all, seen to be leading his nation down the path of democracy.
However, on Tuesday Hun Sen arranged for his government to change laws that critics say will bulldoze what is left of Cambodia's opposition parties and political institutions.
Legislation passed in parliament effectively bans anyone convicted of an offence from running for office, a law aimed at the main opposition party whose leaders have been systematically targeted in Hun Sen controlled courts for criminal prosecutions, mostly in defamation cases for comments made on Facebook.
The law bans any party that engages in activities that include incitement, promoting secession and anything that could harm national security.
It also outlaws foreign donations to political parties which will starve the opposition of money donated by Cambodians living overseas.
"This day will be remembered for the triumph of dictatorship over the dream of the Paris Peace Accords for a rights respecting, multi-party democracy," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch.
"It's no exaggeration that these amendments are like a gun aimed straight at the heart of the opposition party, leaving only the question of when and on what grounds this political execution will take place," he said.
The United States embassy in Phnom Penh said it was deeply concerned about the new law that passed with little consultation or public debate in a parliament controlled by Hun Sen's Cambodian People's party.
For years Hun Sen chipped away at the foundations of democracy that the United Nations put in place in the early 1990s.
Now he has delivered the final blow and the Turnbull government has remained silent.