Sochua calls for action in Australia

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Former CNRP lawmaker Mu Sochua (centre-right) poses for a photograph with Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop (centre-left) after a meeting yesterday in Australia. Photo supplied

Former Deputy Cambodia National Rescue Party President Mu Sochua met with Australian Minister of Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop yesterday, calling for targeted penalties against members of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party in response to the political crackdown that saw the CNRP dissolved.

The meeting came against the backdrop of a protest at the parliament in Canberra attended by around 500 pro-opposition Cambodian-Australian activists.

Last month, the Supreme Court ruled to dissolve the CNRP – Cambodia’s only viable opposition party – in a move almost universally condemned by the international community and observers.

Since then, Sochua and other leaders have embarked on a mission to encourage world leaders to pressure the ruling party, but to little avail. Yesterday, Sochua said it was “very encouraging” that Bishop met with her delegation and some local Cambodian-Australian officials.

“Australia will not support elections in Cambodia,” she said in a message.

The United States cut its financial support of the upcoming 2018 elections, the only concrete action taken in response to the CNRP’s dissolution so far, but Australia had not pledged any funds to the election.

Va Malina, one of the organisers of the protest in Canberra, said the group submitted a petition to parliament requesting that “the Australian government . . . pressure the Cambodian government to respect the Paris Peace Accords, free Kem Sokha and other political prisoners, ban visas for Cambodian government officials, and let CNRP join the 2018 election”.

Malina said the protesters had also hoped to submit the same petition to the Cambodian Embassy, but no representative came to meet them.

Sochua yesterday also met with members of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights, whom she claimed vowed to follow through with her suggestions for visa bans and asset freezes.

“We can expect action from Australia,” she said.

Government spokesman Phay Siphan, however, laughed at the idea of Australia taking concrete action.

“It’s her dream,” he said, claiming Cambodia and Australia have “good relations and cooperation”.

“Australia, they work with the ruling party, they work with the government. We are not a terrorist state . . . we are not ISIS,” Siphan said.

While Australia did release a statement condemning the dissolution of the CNRP, the same statement emphasised that Australia is a “friend” of Cambodia. Neither the Australian Embassy nor Bishop responded to requests for comment this week, but the embassy has previously said Australia is considering options for addressing the situation in Cambodia, but not economic sanctions.

Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, agreed that despite her reception, Sochua’s appeal likely fell on deaf ears.

“While I’m sure that Mu Sochua received a polite hearing, she shouldn’t be holding her breath waiting for concrete action from Canberra,” Robertson said via email last night.

At the core of the issue, he explained, is Australia’s “wrong-headed, rights abusing refugee policies”, which led to a controversial deal to relocate refugees seeking asylum in Australia to Cambodia.

“There’s no room for taking meaningful measures to promote democracy or human rights in that approach,” Robertson added.

Additional reporting by Leonie Kijewski