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Cambodian diaspora eyed as election looms

With the opposition now dissolved and a poll due on July 29, lobbyists appeal to growing influence of overseas communities

By Ate Hoekstra, Phnom Penh

By Ate Hoekstra, Phnom Penh

Published: July 19, 2018 05:43 AM GMT

Updated: July 19, 2018 05:55 AM GMT

Cambodian diaspora eyed as election looms

Australian Cambodians gather to protest the presence of Prime Minister Hun Sen at the ASEAN Summit in Sydney on March 16. Ahead of the regional summit, Hun Sen sparked a storm by reportedly threatening to 'beat' any demonstrators and warned he would 'shame' Australia and block the release of a joint communique if he was embarrassed in any way. (Photo by Peter Parks/AFP)

As a former member of Cambodia's main opposition party, previously elected lawmaker Long Botta knew he was likely to face a grilling when he turned up at Phnom Penh International Airport on Oct. 13, 2017 to fly overseas.

Once immigration officials saw the name in his passport, Botta said he was pulled aside and his documents confiscated while background checks could run on him.

That preceded a tense, 30-minute wait when he began to question if they would find some excuse to detain him further or prevent him boarding his international flight.

"I wasn't actually that worried," Botta recalled eight months later, in a private interview with ucanews.com. "I knew they didn't have any real grounds to arrest me."

Botta served for several years as a lawmaker for the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP). However after its president, Kem Sokha, was arrested last year on suspicion of treason, the Supreme Court dissolved the party and Botta found himself out of a job.

He has since found a new role for his talents and experience — one that hews closely to his political aspirations — as a lobbyist fighting for the rights of his people as part of the Cambodian diaspora.

Since last October he has travelled to Europe, the United States and the Antipodes, touching down in major world cities like Geneva, Paris, California, Melbourne and Wellington to lobby governments and raise awareness among expatriate Cambodians of the political situation in their motherland.

As the country is barreling toward a general election on July 29, Botta appreciates how important their influence and votes could be.

"The Khmer community is like one big family," he said, referring to the ethnic group that makes up 98 percent of Cambodia's population of 16 million people. Khmer is also Cambodia's official language.

"Most diaspora members still feel attached to the country and its culture. It is a very active community that remembers the atrocities of the past and is motivated to speak out about issues."

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Many Cambodians ventured abroad after surviving the horrors of the Khmer Rouge, the name given to followers of the communist party that ruled the country from 1975-79 and carried out genocidal purges of the population.

Others migrated to wealthier and more developed nations so they could send money back to their families to keep them fed.

Large Khmer communities have since been established in Australia, New Zealand, France and the United States.

Frustrated by the events in their motherland — where political freedoms have been increasingly repressed in recent years — they organize street protests, draft petitions and lobby politicians to pressure Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Hun Sen, a man accused of methodically silencing his opponents and critics, has ruled with an iron fist since 1985 and is expected to easily win the upcoming poll as the main opposition has now been dissolved.

Botta says he often visits members of the diaspora with Sam Rainsy, a popular politician who almost led the CNRP to victory in the 2013 elections but was driven into exile two years ago. In June he urged Cambodians to stage a popular uprising after the poll, the results of which he claims have already been fixed. 

"It's a good thing for us and the country that the Khmer abroad are now so active and motivated," Botta said.

Some of the most active diaspora members live in Australia.

In February and March, Cambodians in Melbourne and Sydney burned effigies of Hun Sen after the premier threatened earlier to beat up any protesters who dared to take to the streets during his trip to attend the ASEAN Summit, in a bid to "embarrass" him. The ensuing rallies in Australia made international headlines.

"The situation in Cambodia has gone from bad to worse," said 67-year-old Hong Lim, an Australian politician and member of the Victorian Legislative Assembly. He migrated to Australia in 1970 and now ranks as a leading activist there and champion of the rights of Cambodian people.

"We are doing everything we possibly can to make people more aware of the situation in Cambodia," he told ucanews.com.

"We have petitions, demonstrations and meetings with MPs. We campaign for Cambodians to not vote, and to tell the world that we shouldn't accept this [political situation] anymore," he added.

The impact of the diaspora may be hard to measure but it shouldn't be underestimated. It has helped to heap more international pressure on the government of Hun Sen, which has faced criticism over the last year.

In March a group of 45 countries urged Cambodia to reinstate the CNRP, release all political prisoners and ensure the election is free and fair.

Meanwhile, Washington issued visa restrictions late last year on any Cambodians suspected on being "involved in undermining democracy," a policy it said was issued in response to "anti-democratic actions."

The U.S. took another step in this direction in June when it imposed sanctions on General Hing Bun Hieng over human rights abuses.

The commander of Hun Sen's personal bodyguard unit has seen his U.S. assets frozen and is now banned from doing business with U.S. entities.

Furthermore, a delegation from the European Union recently returned from Cambodia where it evaluated human rights and labor conditions on the ground.

The E.U. subsequently warned Cambodia that it could be removed from the Everything But Arms (EBA) deal, a scheme that makes it possible for the world's least developed countries to export duty-free goods to the European trading bloc.

Cambodia's economy relies heavily on garment exports to Europe, meaning that such a trade sanction could be devastating.

In a statement issued in early July the E.U. said "in the trade policy of the European Union, social justice is a vital aspect, including the respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms and labor standards."

The bloc would analyze the findings from its latest trip and consider further steps, it said, pointing out that "removing Cambodia from the trade scheme is a measure of last resort, if all our other efforts have failed to address these concerns."

But in Australia, an important aid provider to Cambodia, the government has been more restrained in its criticism of the leadership and conditions in the country.

Hong Lim said Canberra is suffering from a conflict of interest because it has a controversial deal with the Hun Sen administration in which Cambodia agrees to safely repatriate asylum seekers in return for Australian aid.

"Australia has never been very strong in condemning Cambodia. Instead they like to play it cool so they can keep their deal," Lim said.

In fact, Lim has been such a fierce critic of Hun Sen that he is now forbidden from returning there. He said this has only made him even more determined to challenge the regime's power.

"Being barred from my homeland pushes me to devote more time to this case. That's why I won't run for parliament again in November, because I want to devote myself to this project on a fulltime basis," he said.

Experts say the influence of the Cambodian diaspora is likely to grow with time and in inverse proportion to the rights of those still living in the impoverished Southeast Asian nation.

"When things get worse inside Cambodia, and Cambodians cannot speak out, those who are outside have to step-up," said Sophal Ear, an associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College in L.A.

"Their influence has been tremendous with respect to [Western] governments paying more attention [to their plight] and doing more [to help out]," he said.

Over 40 members of the United Nations have already spoken up against the actions of the Cambodian government, he said.

"But actions speak louder than words," he added. "The next step is targeted sanctions."

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