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Australia defends Cambodian ties as crackdown continues

Prime Minister Hun Sen?? commands a 6000-strong personal bodyguard unit. Australia’s ambassador in Phnom Penh, Angela Corcoran, sings an MoU and toasts the upgrading of ties with Cambodian’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Prak Sokhonn during a ceremony in Phnom Penh on Wednesday October 18 2017

Bangkok: The Turnbull government has defended Australia’s support for the Cambodian military, even as its soldiers train to use force against civilians amid a ruthless crackdown on democracy and political freedoms.

A Department of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman told Fairfax Media that defence engagement with Cambodia “remains a constructive way to deepen and maintain bilateral ties over the long term,” despite mounting evidence the country is fast sliding into a dictatorship.

A video surfaced on Facebook this week showing armed soldiers in Prime Minister Hun Sen’s 6000-strong personal bodyguard unit training to disperse civilian demonstrators with armed personnel carriers and tanks.

Pointing AK-47 assault rifles, chanting soldiers are seen charging on mobs of mock demonstrators to break them up, according to the Phnom Penh Post.

On Wednesday, Australia upgraded diplomatic ties with Cambodia in a champagne-clinking ceremony, sparking criticism that Canberra is moving closer to Mr Hun Sen at a time human rights groups are calling for donor countries to pressure his regime by imposing punitive sanctions.

Mr Hun Sen, a former commander of the murderous Khmer Rouge who defected to Vietnam, commands the bodyguard unit near his fortress-like resident outside of Phnom Penh. It bristles with sophisticated military hardware, including rocket launchers and 100 tanks.

Cambodian Defence Minister Tea Banh has repeatedly warned that soldiers would “smash the teeth” of protesters and side with the ruling People’s Party in any conflict.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said the military has a long record of intimidating political foes of the government and shooting down protesters on the streets.

“Why the Australian military would want to have anything to do with them is beyond understanding,” he said.

“This is a recipe for more Australian taxpayer’s money disappearing into a haze with little to show but the uncomfortable taint of close association with a serious rights abusing regime.”

The Australian Defence Cooperation Program provides wide-ranging support for the Cambodian military, including scholarships for soldiers to attend office- training courses in Australia.

The spokeswoman said the program focuses on practical engagement activities, including “training and education, maritime security cooperation, senior level dialogues and reform and professionalism of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces”.

Mr Hun Sen has claimed a US-backed conspiracy is trying to oust him after more than three decades in power, but exiled opposition leaders say he is using the claim as a pretence to silence his critics and dismantle democratic institutions.

The regime has forced the collapse of the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party, human rights and community activists are being harassed, independent media outlets have been forced to close and long-time expatriates say a climate of fear pervades in Phnom Penh at a level they have not seen for more than a decade.

Australian filmmaker James Ricketson has been charged with espionage, stoking fears among foreigners they risk being falsely accused, and could face years in jail.

Rhona Smith, the UN’s human rights envoy to Cambodia, has warned the country appears “to be approaching a precipice”.

Australia has pledged $87 million in development aid to Cambodia this year, on top $55 million it paid the regime to accept refugees from the Nauru detention centre.

Only a handful of refugees have agreed to make the journey to one of Asia’s poorest and corrupt nations.

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.

Foreign Minister Julie 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.

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