22 March 2021
I rise to speak on the motion identifying the harassment, intimidation and politically motivated criminal charges against the people of Cambodia by its government. Governments need to be challenged and democracies held to account. To silence any criticism and to censor any dissent is the work of an authoritarian government. It's easy to take for granted the openness in which democracy is practised here in Australia. It's also easy to forget that democracy and freedom from authoritarian rule must be fought for.
The politically motivated mass trials occurring in Cambodia are undemocratic, draconian and ultimately a blatant disregard of the human rights of those charged. By the end of last year, almost 130 people who openly criticised the government were charged with treason for passive, non-violent political activity. Many of those arrested are members of the sole opposition party in Cambodia, the Cambodian National Rescue Party.
Prior to the Cambodian election in 2018 Hun Sen, the Prime Minister and leader of the ruling Cambodian People's Party, fearing a potential challenge from opposition, began pressuring the media to refuse opposition air time. Following this, the opposition were forced by the Cambodian high court to disband the party. All lawmakers from opposition were removed from parliament. The explanation justifying the tyrannical act of arresting and imprisoning the opposition was conspiracy to commit treason and incitement to commit a felony. Prime Minister Hun Sen has been in power for 35 years and is known to frequently tread the waters of dictatorship. Now, he seems to have jumped into the ocean that is totalitarianism, winning the 2018 election—using an unfair and undemocratic election—with a landslide obtaining all seats. Obviously this election has been called a sham.
Sam Rainsy, the co-founder of the National Rescue Party, has been in exile since 2016, avoiding serving prison sentences for defamation and other charges. I had the pleasure of meeting Mr Rainsy in August 2019. Mr Rainsy, accompanied by a group of Cambodian activists, came to speak to me about the troubling situation in Cambodia. Many Cambodians in my community were on hand to see Mr Rainsy.
My community benefits from a strong and vibrant Cambodian diaspora. I've talked with many Cambodian people in my community and I've heard their stories. I spoke with one much older woman whose whole family except her was gunned down. She told me about the traumatic day she lost her family. She told me how she was alone waiting for someone to come and help her. Later she escaped to Australia and re-established her life here. However, her very sad story is all too common. They have seen what has happened in Cambodia before, and they are scared about what is happening now. Cambodians in my community are very concerned about the political situation in their home country and how it may still reach them here. They're concerned about the threats they receive from the Cambodian government—which, if correct, are simply unacceptable. Cambodia has also seen a marked increase in corruption. Transparency International's 2020 Corruption Perceptions Index ranks Cambodia 161st out of 180 nations.
I'm deeply concerned by the suppression of democracy in Cambodia and the conduct of the recent elections, and I, along with my Cambodian colleagues, have long supported a peaceful and democratic Cambodia. The development of strong democratic practices and institutions, including a free press in a civil society, is crucial to the country's long-term prosperity as it is for all free societies in the world.
As a longstanding friend of Cambodia, Australia must continue to urge the government to take steps to allow free and open political debate and participation without violence and intimidation. Australia should again show leadership to ensure that the promises made for fair and democratic elections in this country happen.
I'm concerned to see voices unfairly silenced, and I share the concerns with the member for Bruce and all those who've spoken on this motion. I note that the motion calls on the Australian government to examine the imposition of targeted sanctions, including travel bans and asset freezes, against political and military leaders who continue serious human rights violations. I thank all members and I thank my community for their support on this issue.