The Turnbull government has upgraded diplomatic ties with Cambodia in a champagne-clinking ceremony at a time Prime Minister Hun Sen is ruthlessly dismantling democracy and the country is sliding into a dictatorship.
The move comes as human rights groups are calling for countries like Australia, that have sent billions of dollars in aid to Cambodia, to pressure Mr Hun Sen to end a campaign to silence his critics and consider imposing punitive sanctions on his regime.
Official photographs show Australia’s ambassador to Cambodia, Angela Corcoran, toasting the upgrading of ties with Cambodian Minister of Foreign Affairs Prak Sokhonn during a ceremony in Phnom Penh on Wednesday.
Australia’s then immigration minister Scott Morrison was widely ridiculed for toasting his Cambodian counterpart in a similar ceremony in 2014 to sign a failed $55 million agreement for Australia to send hundreds of refugees on Nauru to Cambodia.
In a statement, the Cambodian government said the signing of a memorandum of understanding to establish senior official talks marked “a new step in enhancing the existing friendly relations and bilateral cooperation between the two countries based on the principle of equality, mutual interest and respect”.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said respect for human rights was in a downward free-fall in Cambodia .
“Trust Canberra to get it exactly wrong at the most critical time,” Mr Robertson said.
Under the pretence of stopping a conspiracy to topple his regime, Mr Hun Sen has forced the collapse of the main opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party. Its leaders are now in jail or exile.
Human rights and community activists are being targeted in a campaign of harassment and many have fled the country.
A growing number of non-government-organisations are facing suspension or expulsion and Cambodia’s independent media outlets have come under attack, forcing the closure of the Cambodia Dailynewspaper and non-government radios.
Long-time expatriate residents, facing increasing harassment as authorities crackdown on work permits and long-stay visas, say a climate of fear pervades the capital at a level they have not seen for more than a decade.
And the arrest of Australian film-maker James Ricketson on espionage charges has stoked fears that foreigners risk being falsely accused of involvement in the supposed plot to bring down the regime, and could face years in jail.
In a just-released report, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) said Mr Hun Sen’s regime was using judges and prosecutors who lacked independence to silence dissent and dismantle democracy.
It said against the backdrop of a rapidly deteriorating human rights situation the country’s justice system includes “an endemic system of political interference in high-profile cases and an equally entrenched system of corruption in all others”.
On Monday, the Cambodian Parliament passed amendments to the law allowing parliamentary seats held by the Cambodian National Rescue Party to be distributed to several pro-government parties in the likely event of its formal dissolution.
“These amendments are the latest in a long line of instances where the government has shamelessly passed or amended laws with the specific purpose of legally harassing perceived opponents or weakening representative democracy within the country,” said Kingsley Abbott, the ICJ’s senior adviser in Bangkok.
Mr Robertson said Australia’s clinking of champagne glasses and signing of a new agreement with Cambodia was a “real gut punch” to the memory of the leading role Australia’s then foreign minister Gareth Evans took in ending a decades-long civil war in Cambodia through a UN-backed agreement. That agreement, known as the Paris Peace Accords, was signed in 1991.
Cambodia’s persecuted opposition leaders want Australia and other signatories to the agreement to convene an urgent meeting to consider ways to pressure Mr Hun Sen to end the repression.
But Mr Hun Sen, a former commander of the murderous Khmer Rouge who defected to Vietnam before being installed as Cambodia’s leader three decades ago, has warned people to stop talking about human rights and democracy guarantees that were written into the Paris agreement, saying it is now only a “ghost” of the past.
Asked about the upgrade of relations, a spokesperson from the Department of Foreign Affairs said the new talks were aimed at “strengthening dialogue across all areas of the bilateral relationship, including on education, development, transnational crime, irregular migration and human rights”.
Canberra’s memorandum of understanding with Cambodia comes days after Australia was elected unopposed to the 47-member UN Human Rights Council, a move some human rights activists have criticised.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop told the ABC that the vote showed Australia was seen as a “principled and a pragmatic voice when it comes to human rights”.
But Mr Robertson from Human Rights Watch said it was no wonder Australia’s top diplomats were thrilled when France pulled out of the race for a seat on the council “because with a track record like this MoU and the refugee dumping deal on Cambodia, Australia might well have come up short if there had been a competitive race for the seat”.
In recent days Australia has faced growing criticism over its refusal to cut support for Myanmar’s military which is accused of committing atrocities against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state. The UN has described the Rohingya crisis as ethnic cleansing and human rights groups say it amounts to crimes against humanity.
Ms Bishop has said Australia is deeply concerned about the violence, but she has refused to directly condemn the Myanmar government led by Aung San Suu Kyi, or the country’s military.