in one of south-east Asia’s poorest nations, the Abbott government wants to send some asylum seekers to
A request on Saturday by Australia’s foreign minister, Julie Bishop, for Australia to initially send a small group of
asylum seekers to live in Cambodia comes amid the strongest challenge to Hun Sen’s rule since he took power
in 1985, becoming one of the world’s longest-serving leaders, with a reputation as a wily operator who destroys
his political opponents.
Before the visit, Human Rights Watch urged Ms Bishop to put rights abuses at the top of her agenda in meetings
with Cambodian leaders, saying under Hun Sen’s rule, ”basic rights, such as freedom of expression, assembly
and association, are under regular attack, while corruption is rampant, severely affecting the enjoyment of basic
economic and social rights by a very poor citizenry”.
”Australia has claimed credit for its diplomacy in the 1990s that was supposed to lead to a democratisation of
Cambodia based on respect for human rights. Sadly, that has not materialised,” said Elaine Pearson, Australian
director at Human Rights Watch.
Hun Sen, a former cadre of the murderous Khmer Rouge, often uses his country’s security forces, judicial system
and other key national institutions for political purposes, rights groups say.
As demonstrations grew following an election last July that opposition parties claim was unfair, the 61-year-old
banned freedom of assembly, prompting the often-violent dispersal of protesters.
Authorities have held 23 people arrested during a garment workers’ strike incommunicado without proper medical
care in a remote prison since January 3.
If an agreement is reached with Australia, asylum seekers would arrive in a country that has no social welfare
and where 20 per cent of the population live in poverty and 40 per cent of children under the age of five are
malnourished, according to the World Bank.
But the bank says poverty has fallen sharply in recent years, underpinned by the garment industry, private
investment and growth in the agriculture sector.
Cambodia is one of only two south-east Asian nations to have signed the 1951 Refugee Convention and has had
a strong UN presence since an Australian-brokered UN peacekeeping operation in 1992-93. During the past four
years, Australia – one of its largest aid donors – has provided more than $329 million.
Canberra was also quick to recognise Hun Sen’s election victory, despite claims of voting irregularities.
During her two-day visit, Ms Bishop gave no details publicly of Australia’s request, referring only to talks on the
Bali Process on people smuggling and trafficking, a multi-country gathering that deals with asylum-seeker issues.
But her Cambodian counterpart, Hor Nam Hong, said his country would seriously consider the request.