Monday, 4 September 2017
Private Members' Business
Cambodia: Human Rights
I'm pleased to rise today in support of the member for McMahon's motion to acknowledge the important role the Cambodian-Australian community have played in our multicultural nation. The first Cambodians came in small numbers in the middle of the last century under the Colombo Plan and for education. But then, over the 11 years from the mid-seventies to the mid-eighties, we had more than 12,000 people settle in Australia under the Special Humanitarian Program, fleeing war and persecution and murder under the Khmer Rouge. Amidst today's debates about refugees and people from other cultures settling in Australia, they're a shining example of successful settlement and integration.
The motion notes 'the large Cambodian communities in Fairfield, Liverpool and Cabramatta' in New South Wales. I had a look at the census numbers. If you total up those of Khmer ancestry, you get about 12,000 across the four New South Wales electorates of Fowler, McMahon, Werriwa and Macarthur. Also, Victoria is home to around 40 per cent of our country's Cambodian Australians, and indeed there's a vibrant community in my part of south-east Melbourne. To cite the numbers, 13,100 people claim Khmer ancestry across the electorates of Bruce, Holt, Hotham and Isaacs. In my electorate, there are nearly 2,000 people who claim Khmer ancestry, with 1,500 born in Cambodia.
To put those numbers into context, however, I was actually a little surprised to realise that it adds up to only 0.2 per cent of the population of Australia. I say I was surprised because, in my electorate, they're such a large, well-known and enormously successful community. Twenty years ago, Hong Lim was the first Cambodian-born person to be elected to a democratic parliament, the Victorian parliament, anywhere in the world. He came to Australia as an international student, studied in Tasmania and stayed. Outstanding community leaders include Councillor Youhorn Chea, who is a long-serving councillor, was many times Mayor of the City of Greater Dandenong and is currently the President of the Cambodian Australian Federation; and the wonderful Councillor Heang Tak, a former mayor, lawyer and broadcaster. These people, of course, are leaders not just for the Cambodian Australians but also for the broader Australian community in their leadership roles. I record my thanks in the parliament to them. They were founders over 40 years ago of the Cambodian Association of Victoria. I was delighted to attend its 41st dinner, in June—which was hosted, actually, at the Victorian parliament, the very seat of Victorian democracy. We see them taking their rightful place along with the broader mainstream community having functions in that place. The work that these leaders do to promote diversity is incredible, especially for the first-generation Cambodians, who've been through the most dreadful war, persecution and violence. They do not speak of it very often, but what they've seen stays with them and their families. To be such a peaceful, loving people serving the community and attending the Buddhist temple is so impressive. But the next generation, who also featured at that dinner, of scientists, media broadcasters, businesspeople and so on are also impressive.
I want to say a few words in closing on the political situation in Cambodia. We're just a few weeks away from 23 October, the 26th anniversary of the 1991 Paris peace accords, which were a shining success for the tenure of Gareth Evans, a former member for Holt, as Minister for Foreign Affairs. Sadly, 25 years on, the situation is not as the world then had hoped it would be. It's a difficult time now for the Cambodian people and, indeed, the diaspora. We've heard growing and disturbing reports of human rights abuses and state-sponsored, or at least state-tolerated, threats, violence and oppression. Today's report of the arrest of the opposition leader, Mr Kem Sokha, on treason charges, for plotting to overthrow the government is, in one sense, farcical. Of course it's the job of an opposition leader to plot to overthrow the government. That's what we do in performing our job of holding the government to account and putting forward a platform for government. That is the job of opposition leaders in a democracy. As the Chair of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights noted, this has taken things to an alarming new level. The Cambodian Australian Federation expressed its outrage today that now the opposition leader has joined 19 other political prisoners behind bars. The use of the criminal justice system to persecute dissidents has to stop.
The signs do not augur well for next year's national elections in Cambodia. We did have some problems, although they were not as bad as was feared, in the local commune elections, but comments by the current Prime Minister, Hun Sen, who said recently that 'war will happen if the CPP loses control' following elections, or statements by the national defence minister that protesters would be beaten 'until their teeth came out' do concern not just people living in Cambodia but those in my electorate and the member for Holt's electorate, where their families and friends are under threat. (Time expired)