Ethnic Cambodians in Australia Oppose a Strongman by Burning His Effigy
Posted March 19, 2018 2:04 a.m. EDT
SYDNEY, Australia — Hong Lim, a dapper Australian politician who seems most at home walking the corridors of the colonial era state Parliament of Victoria in a tailored suit, is not the first person you would imagine burning an effigy in a parking lot.
But the Cambodian-born legislator has now done so twice in recent weeks, after finding himself at the center of an unfolding battle over free speech and the reach of Cambodia’s authoritarian government into diaspora communities here.
In advance of a high-profile visit to Australia this weekend, Cambodia’s long-ruling prime minister, Hun Sen, prompted international outrage by publicly threatening violence against anyone who protested his presence by burning his effigy.
Lim, 67, said the threat had given him an idea. “Out of the blue, he just said, ‘Look, if you’re going to protest and you burn my photo or my effigy, I’m going to come follow you and go to your house and beat you up,'” Lim said.
“My God, why didn’t we ever think about that?” he added with an impish smile.
Lim promptly helped organize an effigy-burning in Melbourne, the capital of Victoria, the Australian state with the largest ethnic Cambodian population. He was pictured in his shirt sleeves and tie next to a blazing dummy of Hun Sen wearing a castoff New York Knicks jersey that was doused in fuel and set ablaze.
Mass protests and another burning took place this weekend in Sydney, where the Cambodian leader was attending the first formal gathering of Southeast Asian leaders in Australia.
“He thinks he can do anything he wants in Cambodia, and so he thinks he can come to Australia and do the same thing,” Lim said.
Hosting this weekend’s summit meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations is an effort by the government of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to position Australia as a regional leader and to counter the influence of China.
But rights supporters have raised concerns about the propriety of feting the leaders, many of whom have presided over serious abuses or rollbacks of democratic freedoms in recent years. Human Rights Watch has described the meeting as a “dance with dictators.”
Attendees include Gen. Prayuth Chanocha, the leader of the Thai junta, who seized power in a coup in 2014 and has postponed elections indefinitely; and Myanmar’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been criticized for inaction in the face of a brutal military campaign against the Rohingya Muslim minority.
Particular outrage has coalesced around the presence of Hun Sen, who has spent the past six months methodically jailing or exiling his political opponents and critics, in advance of elections scheduled for July.
Elaine Pearson, Australia director for Human Rights Watch, said Australia should be doing more to oppose abuses in the region but the country appeared to be holding back in an effort to jostle for position with China. Australia has also been constrained by a widely criticized deal it made in 2014 to send refugees trying to reach its shores to live in Cambodia.
“It seems like there’s almost a race to the bottom with China in terms of human rights, and that’s exactly the wrong approach,” Pearson said.
The summit meeting also comes as a small but impassioned proxy battle for political supremacy in Cambodia has been playing out in Australia.
After nearly being voted out in 2013 by a new opposition party that counted many overseas Cambodians among its supporters and funders, the Cambodian People’s Party of Hun Sen, which has held power in some form since 1979, began to aggressively target the diaspora.
In 2015, the prime minister’s eldest son, Hun Manet, a senior figure in Cambodia’s military, was placed in charge of a new effort to drum up support in countries including Australia. Since then, he has made multiple visits to Melbourne and Sydney.
Speech by Cambodians abroad has also come under increased scrutiny at home. In September, the country’s opposition leader, Kem Sokha, was jailed on charges of treason, and his party was later dissolved by court order. The primary evidence in both cases was a speech to supporters in Melbourne in 2013.
Lim, a dual citizen, was banned from Cambodia two years ago for calling its government “beastly,” and he has been threatened with arrest if he returns.
Julie Heckscher, an official at the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, said at a Senate hearing on March 1 that the government had informed Cambodian officials that threats of violence toward protesters on Australian soil were “not acceptable.”
Lim, who peppers his Cambodian-accented speech with distinctly Australian words like “crikey,” clearly relishes his new role as an international mischief maker. But beneath the showmanship, he appears genuinely concerned at what he says is a concerted effort by Hun Sen’s party to co-opt and threaten Cambodians abroad.
The Cambodian People’s Party has opened an Australian branch of its uniformed youth corps, and has ordered Cambodia’s ambassador in Canberra to double as a political organizer.
For his part, Lim recently helped arrange political asylum in Australia for Bou Rachana, the widow of a government critic who was assassinated in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, in 2016. Since she arrived in late February, Lim said they had both received a crudely worded death threat in Khmer, the language of Cambodia, which they reported to the Australian police.
Lim was studying in Australia on a scholarship when Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge in 1975. Diplomatic relations between the countries were cut off, and he took a job drilling metal in a boat factory to make ends meet. Back home, his parents died of starvation under the brutal Communist regime.
Starting in 1979, the fall of the Khmer Rouge and ensuing civil war sent a wave of refugees to Australia, and Lim became a community leader. In 1996, he became the first Australian of Asian descent elected to a state Parliament’s lower house.
For years, he refrained from overtly supporting any side in Cambodian politics, and he even welcomed Hun Sen during a visit to Australia in the early 1990s. But he said that recent political developments had forced his hand.
“The Labor left just loved him, and when he visited, many of them turned up for him in one of the local restaurants, and people just mobbed him like a movie star,” he recalled.
“He was such an orator, and now look at him — he has become such a monster. We used to love and respect him and now we fear and loathe him.”
Mr. Hun Sen, a former guerrilla fighter who seems particularly sensitive about his image, threatened to withdraw his participation in the summit meeting or veto any joint communiqués if he was “pressured” by protesters.
In a speech this month, he compared Mr. Lim to an “endlessly barking” dog and expressed sympathy with the Australian government for having to deal with him.
At a Friday evening protest at Hyde Park in Sydney, Sawathey Ek, 48, a Cambodian-born lawyer, arrived with his two sons and a homemade poster featuring a patchwork of unflattering photographs of Hun Sen.
Police officers had asked protesters not to set fires in the city center, so attendees stomped on the photographs instead, or poked them with umbrellas. Ek said Hun Sen’s threats had galvanized the community.
“He wanted to impose his tentacles of violence on all of us, and we feel it is completely unacceptable,” he said.
Ek said he wanted to teach his children that they had the right to speak freely, and even to deface the image of the Cambodian prime minister if they wished.
For Bou, the widow, the stakes felt higher. Although she and her five sons are still settling into their new life in Melbourne, she said she had been determined to attend the protest, where she addressed the crowd with a bullhorn.
“I had never gotten a chance to do this, to express my personal feelings,” she said.