House debates

Monday, 4 September 2017

Private Members' Business

Cambodia: Human Rights

12:08 pm

Photo of Chris BowenChris Bowen (McMahon, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Treasurer) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That this House:

(1) notes that between 1975 and 1986, over 12,000 Cambodians were settled in Australia under the Special Humanitarian Program after being forced to flee their homeland by the Khmer Rouge;

(2) acknowledges the contribution that Cambodian-Australians have made to our nation since that time and the role they have played in the success story of Australian multiculturalism, including the large Cambodian communities in Fairfield, Liverpool and Cabramatta;

(3) notes that the Cambodian community in Australia faces challenges that require attention, including a higher than average unemployment rate and a higher proportion of lower wage employment than the national average;

(4) notes the struggle that many in Cambodia still face from their Government, including the right to peaceful assembly and opposition to Government policies; and

(5) reaffirms Australia's commitment to the United Nations Human Rights Council's statement of 14 September 2016 that we are 'deeply concerned about escalating threats to legitimate activities by Opposition parties and Human Rights NGOs' in Cambodia'.

The Cambodian community in Australia is not our largest ethnic community and it's not our most high-profile ethnic community, but it's a very important ethnic community. I want to take this opportunity for the House to record its views about significant issues relating to the Cambodian community in Australia.

By way of background, there wasn't much migration from Cambodia to Australia until about 1979. The first recorded case of migration from Cambodia to Australia was in the 1940s—one family of nine people—but it was after the issues and the troubles and the terrible tragedies which befell Cambodia in the 1970s that Australia, quite rightly, provided refuge to many more Cambodians. We now have, on the last figures I've seen, around 25,000 Australians who claim Cambodian heritage.

The Cambodian community is a particularly vibrant and colourful one. Those honourable members who've been to Cambodian functions in their electorates at their temples and other events, as I have, would attest to the friendly and vibrant nature of a Cambodian community event.

The Cambodian community has contributed much to Australia. I will use a small case study. Mr Sawathey Ek is a lawyer who resides in Western Sydney and works closely with me and my office in assisting Cambodians, particularly around immigration cases. When he was awarded an Order of Australia medal, in 2001, he said something very profound, and it's relevant to some of the debates we see more broadly on immigration and refugee issues in Australia at the moment. He told a story. He said: 'When my father first went before the immigration board in 1983, aged 60, they said to him, "What do you have to offer?" He said, "Maybe nothing, but my sons will."' That was a very telling statement, I thought, by Mr Ek Sr. And he is right: his sons, Sawathey in particular, have gone on to make an important contribution to Australia. That was recognised with the Order of Australia medal in 2001. I'm sure that in 1983 Mr Ek Sr could not have imagined that his son would make such a contribution that he would receive an Order of Australia medal.

I want to deal with the matter of the interaction of the Australian Cambodian community with events in Cambodia. The Australian Cambodian community, as I said, is a vibrant, strong, good community. But there are some who seek to drag the Cambodian community in Australia into domestic political issues in Cambodia. That is most unfortunate. It is incumbent on governments around the world to leave their diasporas free to undertake political activities in new countries—that applies to the Cambodian community as well—and not to feel in any way intimidated or admonished by home governments for any views that they might take which aren't in keeping. We all know the challenges that continue to exist in Cambodia. Even this morning, I heard on the radio that a newspaper in Cambodia is being closed down, allegedly because of a tax bill. A newspaper which has been critical of the government is being closed down. Of course, this is the latest in a long line of concerns which have been raised with the Cambodian government. The government has been admonished by international organisations for denying Cambodians their right to peaceful assembly, for suppressing protests and for enforcing bans on non-violent gatherings.

What this motion is about is the House coming together as one and saying to the Australian Cambodian community: 'You are valued, you are an important part of Australian society and fabric, but we will not tolerate members of the Cambodian community in Australia being intimidated in any way by anybody, including by the Cambodian government or anybody in the Australian Cambodian community who seeks to interfere with their rights as Australian citizens to express views.' We do not want to see a situation where what is a very troubled political environment in Cambodia is carried over to Australia. We stand with the Cambodian Australian community, a wonderful community that has contributed so much. We stand with them not just in words, not just in general sentiments, but in the view that they are not the playthings of political parties in Cambodia and they should not be involved in efforts to rope them in to political issues in Cambodia. They are Australian citizens and they have every right to conduct themselves as Australian citizens and not feel in any way intimidated. If we see that intimidation at any point, we will call it out for what it is in this House and in other places.

Photo of Sharon BirdSharon Bird (Cunningham, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Vocational Education) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the motion seconded?

Photo of Julian HillJulian Hill (Bruce, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the motion.

12:13 pm

Photo of Andrew WallaceAndrew Wallace (Fisher, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Through my association with the Parliamentary Friendship Group of Cambodia, I've come to learn how important the close relationship between Australia and Cambodia is and that it's vitally important we continue to foster this relationship into the future. I thank the honourable member for making this opportunity to further this discussion, because it is a very important relationship that we have.

There are currently 60,000 citizens of Cambodian descent who call Australia home. Their contribution to our way of life enriches our society and contributes to Australia's economy and, indeed, our very social fabric. There's also a growing cohort of self-funded Cambodians who choose Australia as their place of preference for studying. The federal government's scholarships program has seen 700 Cambodians study in Australia since 1994. This has provided these Cambodians with important skills and training and qualifications that they are able to take back to their own country and assist with their own social and economic development. Importantly, the Cambodian government has proven to be a strong supporter of the New Colombo Plan, which encourages a two-way exchange of students within the Indo-Pacific region. Cambodia joined this program in 2015 and expects to host 530 students in the program during 2018.

The governments of Australia and Cambodia enjoy close cooperation on transnational crime, education, development, cooperation in defence and trade, and investment. Australia's support has delivered real progress in economic growth and also in reducing poverty in that country. In particular, we've supported the Cambodian health sector through the Development Cooperation Program. One goal of this program is to achieve universal health coverage, which equates to a financial contribution from Australia in the order of $50 million over five years. Assistance that has been provided in agriculture and infrastructure has also seen positive results across the Cambodian nation.

It is clear that Australians have a very strong desire to support and nurture our relationship with the Cambodian people. This is evidenced by the nearly 7,000 Australians who currently reside in Cambodia. Australians are also choosing Cambodia as a tourist destination, with approximately 147,000 people travelling to Cambodia in 2016 alone.

During the 65 years that Australia has maintained close diplomatic ties with the Cambodian people, we have also ensured the relationship has been supported by high-level exchanges. This year the Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Senator the Hon. Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, visited Cambodia in March; Vice Chief of the ADF, Vice Admiral Griggs, visited in July. There have been many other high level exchanges over the years that demonstrate Australia's ongoing interest in and support of this nation.

In addition to its strong track record in supporting the economic and social welfare of the Cambodian people, Australia has also supported Cambodia's development as a democracy. Australia closely monitors political developments in Cambodia, and has not remained silent in instances where it has held concerns. Indeed, in February this year, the Australian embassy in Phnom Penh issued a statement raising concerns the government had with amendments to Cambodia's law on political parties. Australia made direct representations, including at an ambassador level and at senior levels of government, both before and after the law was passed. Senator Fierravanti-Wells raised our concerns in her meeting with the Cambodian foreign minister during her visit. I am a proud member of the parliamentary friends of Cambodia group. Friends speak up when they need to, and the Australian government will continue to work with the Cambodian government in times to come. (Time expired)

12:18 pm

Photo of Julian HillJulian Hill (Bruce, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

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)

12:23 pm

Photo of Anthony ByrneAnthony Byrne (Holt, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I commend the motion put forward by the member for McMahon and the contribution by the member for Bruce, who I know is a passionate advocate on behalf of the Cambodian community here and in the south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne, along with the member for Hotham and the member for Isaacs. I too note the significant contribution that Cambodian Australians have made to our community, because they really have been one of the success stories of Australia's multiculturalism. It has been mentioned previously that my predecessor, Gareth Evans, had some significant role in the Cambodian community and the difficulties that arose out of the killing fields of the Pol Pot regime. I refer to the motion, which states:

… between 1975 and 1986, over 12,000 Cambodians were settled in Australia under the Special Humanitarian Program after being forced to flee their homeland by the Khmer Rouge;

In the four years—and it's important in this debate to recall the context—that the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia, it was responsible for one of the worst mass killings of the 20th century. The barbaric Khmer Rouge regime in power in that period of time claimed the lives of up to two million people. According to the BBC, under the Marxist leader Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge tried to take Cambodia back to the Middle Ages, forcing millions of people from the cities to work on communal farms in the countryside. But this horrific attempt at social engineering had enormous cost. Many families died from execution, starvation, disease and overwork. That's important to reflect upon, particularly given the current concerns of the Cambodian community here in this country.

I pay tribute to the former member for Holt, Gareth Evans. As many in this House will know, he played a significant role in the political settlement of this conflict. As foreign minister, he helped secure the 1991 Paris peace accord, which ultimately resulted in direct involvement by the United Nations in the civil administration of Cambodia during the transition period.

Given that history, particularly of my most illustrious predecessor, it is of grave concern to see the recent actions of the Cambodian government. In recent years, the local Cambodian Australian community, including the Cambodian Australian Federation, in Springvale, along with Gareth Evans and many others who have taken an enduring interest in and focus on the future of the Cambodian state, have voiced concerns about increasing human rights abuses and the attack on free speech. For example, the Cambodian community is very concerned about Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen's assault on government critics, which has intensified since May 2015. The Cambodia Daily newspaper, a frequent critic of the government, has been forced to close down recently. An incredibly disturbing development occurred last year with the assassination of political activist Kem Ley, which caused deep concern and anguish amongst the Cambodian community in my region. Most recently, the opposition leader, Kem Sokha, has been taken into custody by around 100 police. The accusation is treason.

On Saturday, 9 September, the Cambodian Association of Victoria, under the leadership of President Youhorn Chea, will be leading a protest at the Springvale Town Hall condemning the Cambodian government's recent actions of suppressing dissenting voices in Cambodia and, importantly, particularly given Gareth Evans's involvement, failing to fulfil commitments as a party to the 1991 Paris peace accord. I know that many members of the Cambodian Australian community as well as the broader community will be in attendance to support this particular action.

We have been blessed with the contributions made by important figures within the Cambodian community in my time in politics. For example, Victoria has been incredibly well represented by Hong Lim, the Victorian state member for Clarinda. He's obviously of Cambodian-Chinese descent. He's been a member for 21 years. Hong was the first and only Chinese Cambodian to be elected to a parliament anywhere in the English-speaking world and has served the community very well. Councillor Youhorn Chea was the first Cambodian mayor when he was the Mayor of the City of Greater Dandenong. We now have Councillor Heang Tak, from the Paperbark Ward, who has also been Mayor of the City of Greater Dandenong. Their contribution to this country has been amazing and fulfilling. They are one of Australia's great multicultural success stories. We need to do what we can, as we are with this motion by the member for McMahon, in supporting them with their concerns about what is happening in Cambodia today.

12:29 pm

Photo of Chris HayesChris Hayes (Fowler, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I also rise to speak about the contemporary human rights situation in Cambodia. There is an increasing threat to civil society, independent journalism and opposing political groups in Cambodia today. With the upcoming general election, many groups and individuals have been subjected to intimidation from the government for exercising their rights to freedom of speech, peaceful assembly and political expression. I've been made aware of many of these concerns by local Cambodian Australians living in my electorate. They've shared with me, firstly, their struggles which they faced when they were forced to flee their homeland following the occupation by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge through the seventies and eighties, with many of them resettling here in Australia. The development and ongoing contribution of the Cambodian community to this country is a very successful migrant story. But despite these challenges, and many that they still face, they continue to share that dream and passion for a more open society in Cambodia.

In Cambodia today there are escalating threats to independent media and civil society, with authorities now alleging that outlets and organisations owe back taxes as a means to close them down. I have been informed that independent English-language newspaper The Cambodia Daily has been threatened with closure under these allegations. Furthermore, two radio stations—the Women's Media Centre for Cambodia and Mohanokor—were recently suspended for breaching their licence agreements. They were airing news from Radio Free Asia and the Voice of America. I was informed that the National Democratic Institute, a US NGO focusing on civil participation, was told in late August this year that all its foreign staff must leave Cambodia within seven days and that it must close operations. All domestic and international NGOs are required to register with the government in Cambodia and to report their activities and their finances on a regular basis. If they fail to comply they risk being charged for contempt and face criminal prosecution. Hence, organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International do not have offices operating in Cambodia.

This level of intimidation is increasing in the lead-up to next year's general election in July. It is concerning that Prime Minister Hun Sen has warned repeatedly of civil war should his ruling party lose the general election. It is also widely reported that many government agencies have threatened violence should people protest the election results. These acts of intimidation follow the murder of Kem Ley, a prominent political commentator and critic of the Hun Sen government in relation to, in particular, issues of illegal logging and corruption. The founder of Khmer for Khmer, a grassroots advocacy group, Kem Ley was shot and killed in July last year at a petrol station in Phnom Penh. I'm advised that there are many questions outstanding in regard to the investigation into Mr Ley's murder despite a person being convicted in March this year.

In a stunning recent development, Kem Sokha, the leader of Cambodia's main opposition party, was arrested this weekend on charges of treason. The government has alleged that he is participating with a Washington based organisation to undermine the country's leadership. According to John Sifton, the director of Human Rights Watch Asia:

The government's charges lack credibility, given its long record of misusing its legal system to silence or intimidate critics and political opponents.

The arrest of Kem Sokha is a dangerous setback to Cambodia, only reinforcing the long-ruling authoritarian Prime Minister Hun Sen's bid to consolidate power ahead of next year's election.

Addressing these issues of human rights are essential for any development in Cambodia. Promoting safety in society through the rights of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, rather than threatening, can help Cambodia improve its standing in the global community. Given Australia's ambitions for a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council, we can play a greater role as we develop closer economic ties with countries in the Asia-Pacific. We can ensure that our commercial ties help states like Cambodia to improve their human rights records, which will in turn open up new economic opportunities. (Time expired)

Debate interrupted.