A Tiger Rules the Mountain

The world's longest serving Prime Minister and Cambodia's pursuit of democracy

Death threats and trade envoys

ABC Radio Interview: I discuss death threats and Australian government missteps

I appeared on Australian radio with a Victorian MP in Australia, Meng Heang Tak who lived in Cambodia until he was 16, who received a letter advising him that he was on an assassination hit list. Just a few weeks earlier, Australian Federal Police attended a meeting with about 200 Cambodians living in Melbourne to discuss intimidation coming from Cambodians either aligned to or part of the government there.

The radio host, Virginia Trioli, asked me what Australia should be doing right now. For starters it shouldn’t be sending its special envoy to talk trade and investment just two weeks before an election that the biggest opposition party has been barred from taking part in.

If you’re in Australia, you can listen to the whole interview here on the ABC website and have a laugh at how they spelt my surname. If you’re outside Australia, you can listen to a recording of the interview below.

I’ve also transcribed the interview so you can read it here too. On a positive note, I was happy to see that Viriginia had a well-thumbed copy of my book A Tiger Rules the Mountain on her desk. I added to that by giving her some prahok (a Cambodian dish) which she hopefully enjoyed for lunch afterwards.

Virginia Trioli (ABC)  00:01

A very important election in Cambodia coming up on Sunday, and a letter has been sent to the Melbourne office of state labor MP Meng Heang Tak just before the election, saying that his name has appeared on a hit list, along with some other prominent and vocal opponents of the government in Phnom Penh. Now, we’ve just learned this news this morning, just as we’re about to speak to Gordon Conochie, who’s an adjunct research fellow at Latrobe University and a former journalist. He’s formerly worked in Cambodia, and he’s written a new book called A Tiger Rules The Mountain – Cambodia’s Pursuit Of Democracy, and he joins me here. Gordon, good morning.

Gordon Conochie: Good morning.

Virginia Trioli (ABC)  But we also wanted to bring into our conversation minhang Tech, who has been the target of this threat, man, good to talk to you. Good morning.

Virginia Trioli (ABC)  00:55

Tell me about the letter that you’ve received.

Meng Heang Tak MP  00:58

Well, the letter was sent to my office here, telling me to stop talking about human rights situation and this up coming election. This letter came about, perhaps in response to my speech in state parliament, calling out that election being without the main opposition party, without independent media and jailing of trade unionists in Cambodia. we don’t call it an election. We call it a sham election.

Virginia Trioli (ABC)  01:36

And what what was the nature of the threat? Are you able to share that with us?

Meng Heang Tak MP  01:40
Basically, I’m not alleging anyone behind this, but I’m just saying it’s cowardly. It’s not. It’s not what we do here in Australia. But it’s a sad thing.

Virginia Trioli (ABC)  02:00

Did it make you feel afraid?

Meng Heang Tak MP  02:04

Of course, Virginia. The letter although it appears to come from overseas, but sent by local person, in Australia, but we have to take this seriously. I mean, any threat at all, it’s a warning, but this will not deter myself or many of the Cambodian community who continue to stand in solidarity with our brother and sister who are doing courageous work in terms of defending human rights and democracy in Cambodia.

Virginia Trioli (ABC)  02:47

I’ll talk a little bit more about that in just a moment, about what’s going on in Cambodia, and how those voices in support of people in Cambodia are being raised here in just a moment with Gordon, but what are police telling you? Are they investigating this and are you having to get further security and protection for yourself and your family?

Meng Heang Tak MP  03:06

Well, I thank the Victorian Police for doing a fantastic job. They have confirmed that it’s an active investigation, and I thank them.

Virginia Trioli (ABC)  03:20

Are these threats common against high profile critics like you?

Meng Heang Tak MP  03:25

It’s very common. Virginia, we have seen back in 2018, Hong Lim, my predecessor, former member for Clarinda, also received very similar, very similar threats. But this again, it’s shows the cowardly act by a foreign country. And we cannot accept that. But at the same time, our community is very strong. We want to see a transparency, democracy through elections in Cambodia, so therefore, we would not and we will not be deterred from this.

Virginia Trioli (ABC)  04:12

You won’t stop criticizing Hun Sen.

Meng Heang Tak MP  04:15

Until we see a free fair and democratic country.

Virginia Trioli (ABC)  04:26

Meng Heang Tak is the Labour member for Clarinda who received that very serious assassination threat. The Victorian police saying it’s an active investigation. Gordon Conochie I mentioned before has written this book A Tiger Rules The Mountain, Cambodia’s Pursuit Of Democracy. Good to have you in the studio. How does this land with you?

Gordon Conochie  04:47

Not surprising, and there was actually an event in Melbourne with Australian Federal Police a few weeks ago to talk about how the community’s feeling about threats to it coming from Cambodians visiting Australia and 200 people attended that. So, it shows the level of concern amongst the Cambodian community living here in Melbourne, and felt elsewhere in Australia too.

Virginia Trioli (ABC)  05:10

Hun Sen has used the courts there in Cambodia to dismantle the political party threatening his rule. MPs were thrown out of Parliament. After he crushed his rivals a few years ago, he cruised to victory in that 2018 election, he won all 125 seats in Cambodia’s parliament. I guess that’s why our Labour MP here doesn’t really call it a government, he calls it a sham.

Gordon Conochie  05:35

Yeah, it’s definitely a procession that you will see. The opposition party that did well in the local elections last year, was excluded from the election because it didn’t have its original Certificate of Registration. And the National Election Committee wouldn’t allow any photocopy or replacement. So they’ve been banned. The other parties are standing in the election have got no record of success. Six of them have never competed in the national election before. And the other parties in the last election only managed to gather 12% of the vote in total between them all. So yeah, this is this is going to be a one-way election with one winner.

Virginia Trioli (ABC)  06:16

And that’s the outcome of what you’ve charted in your book about how Cambodia has come to this? How has it come to this point? What’s been the story of this very lovely and important country, becoming just an autocracy?

Gordon Conochie  06:31

Yeah, it’s interesting. So, after the Civil War, the United Nations went into Cambodia to hold elections in 1993 . At that election Cambodians turned out in huge force to vote, for the first time in their lives, a lot of them. And there were four parties that were elected to the National Assembly. And that was meant to be the birth of democracy, and Cambodians believed there was this promise of democracy for their country. And you fast forward 30 years and we’re now at a stage where we’ve only got one party in the National Assembly. So democracy hasn’t flourished. And even though the economy has developed, and people have become more educated, the Cambodian government and Hun Sen has managed to dismantle the pillars of democracy. The free media has been banned, trade unions have been restricted, freedom of speech has been extremely limited. So he’s been able to control Cambodia.

Virginia Trioli (ABC)  07:29

And I don’t think we’re drawing too close a link here, because clearly, this is an outcome of what you just described there, that Cambodia remains one of the poorest countries in Asia.

Gordon Conochie  07:40

Yeah. It’s interesting, it has now become classified as a lower middle income country, by the World Bank. But yeah, there’s still huge swathes of poverty within the country, certainly in rural areas. But internally, the government receives a bit of support because of its economic development, the progress shown there. Certainly China has been investing a lot of money in the last five to 10 years, which has enabled huge infrastructure projects be built. And people see that progress, it’s visible.

Virginia Trioli (ABC)  08:11

Tell us what the relationship you think should be or what messages should be coming from the Australian Government to Cambodia right now.

Gordon Conochie  08:18

Well, they probably shouldn’t send their Southeast Asian Special Envoy to talk about trade and investment just two weeks before an election.

Virginia Trioli (ABC)  08:26

That’s a signal, isn’t it? Yes.

Gordon Conochie  08:30

And, you know, he meets high business leaders from Cambodian society, who are nearly always aligned with the ruling party and hold positions within that ruling party. So it’s seen as a signal that this is an endorsement of the Cambodian government. That was a misstep. And then when the Foreign Minister talks about shared values of prosperity, stability, peace, there was nothing mentioned about democracy or human rights. The Australian government has got to be talking publicly and giving support to people within Cambodia who are trying to campaign for democracy and human rights

Virginia Trioli (ABC)  09:07

Gordon, good to meet you. Congratulations on the book.

Gordon Conochie  09:13

Thank you very much.

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