PHNOM PENH —
Amid an ongoing war of words between Prime Minister Hun Sen and the Cambodian-Australian community, the Cambodian ambassador has moved to play down the dispute, which led to effigies of Hun Sen being burned in Melbourne last week, saying diplomatic ties between the two nations had not been affected.
The protesters were responding to threats made by Hun Sen to “chase and beat” Cambodian-Australians who burned his effigy during a visit to the country for the Asean-Australia Summit later this month.
Hun Sen had also appeared to warn Australia that the Asean bloc may not come to a consensus during the summit if vocal protests against his rule were to take place.
Koy Kuong, the Cambodian ambassador to Australia, on Wednesday told reporters in Phnom Penh that Cambodian-Australian relations were “positive”.
“Everything remains in good shape,” Kuong said. “Thus far, everything is positive with nothing drives the relations backwards.”
He added that protesters in Australia would not only target Hun Sen and Cambodia, but also other Asean nations.
“Thus, Asean diplomats in Canberra have submitted requests to the Australian government to protect the safety, the well-being, and the dignity for all the visiting delegates, including [Hun Sen],” he said.
Kuong’s comments came a day after the foreign ministry sent a request to the Australian government calling on it to ensure Hun Sen’s “reputation” was “protected”.
The Australia government of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has been criticized by his political opponents and some exiled Cambodian politicians for apparent inaction in light of the political crackdown in Cambodia that has drawn stern rebukes from Washington and Brussels.
Both the U.S. and the E.U. withdrew electoral support for Cambodia after Hun Sen won a case at the country’s Supreme Court to dissolve the Cambodia National Rescue Party and since its president Kem Sokha was jailed on “treason” charges.
The United States has since cut some aid programs to Cambodia, while the European Union is debating removing Cambodia from preferential trade agreements. Prominent U.S. Senators have also drafted a bill, known as the CARI Act, that if adopted could lead to asset freezes of top officials.
The Australian Embassy in Phnom Penh did not respond to a request for comment.
In Australia’s parliament on Wednesday, Labour Party lawmaker Chris Bowen said the Cambodian-Australian community was “rightly outraged” and “frankly scared” by Hun Sen’s threats.
“Even if he’s a prime minister, he will not come to our country and behave like this,” Bowen said.
Australia has been an source of some $90 million of official development assistance to Cambodia in recent years while bilateral trade stood at $535 million in 2016.
Miguel Chanco, lead Asean analyst for The Economist Intelligence Unit, said he does not think the forthcoming Asean summit with Australia is going to be derailed despite Hun Sen’s rhetoric.
“The 2014 refugee deal that both countries signed is likely a contributing factor to Australia's relative silence on the CPP's political crackdown in Cambodia,” Chanco said.
“My sense is that Australia's broader ambition to play something of a leadership role in Asean -- against the backdrop of the leadership vacuum left by the US under Trump's stewardship -- is the bigger motivation behind this pragmatic silence.”