Thursday, October 24, 2013

letter for Prime Minister Tony Abbott

Australian tax-payers will provide $97.2 million in foreign aid to Cambodia this financial year.  Despite serious allegations of electoral fraud, Australia has congratulated Prime Minister Hun Sen on his victory. Would it be unreasonable for Australia’s Prime Minister to request an independent investigation into alleged electoral ‘irregularities’ in the recent Cambodian elections as a condition for providing this aid?

James Ricketson
Phnom Penh

The Hon Tony Abbott
Prime Minister
Parliament House
Canberra, Australia

24th October 2013

Dear Prime Minister

On July 28th Cambodia held elections. On the evening of 28th Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party claimed victory. Over the following days a mass of evidence appeared suggestive of what can most kindly be described as ‘irregularities’. The Opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party requested that there be an independent investigation into these alleged ‘irregularities’. Hun Sen’s ruling party refused to allow an independent investigation to occur.

Australia congratulated Hun Sen on his victory despite serious doubts as to whether or not his party had won the election at all. Was this an appropriate response to the election result under the circumstances? More importantly, is it possible, now, that Australia could, diplomatically, add its voice to those of other countries that are calling for an independent investigation into the election results? Australian tax-payers are, after all, providing Cambodia with $97.2 million in aid this financial year!

Your government could certainly justify its shift in position by pointing to the 2 million Cambodian voters (a third of the voting public) who have signed a petition requesting such an investigation. Would 2 million Cambodians sign such a petition if they believed that Prime Minister Hun Sen had in fact won? If they had confidence in him and his government? Would irregularities of the kind alleged to have occurred in Cambodia be allowed to go uninvestigated in Australia?

Copies of the petition will be delivered to the Australian Embassy in Phnom Penh on Friday 25th Oct.

It may be, if an independent investigation were to be conducted, that it would be discovered there have been ‘irregularities’ of the kind that Sam Rainsy’s Cambodian National Rescue Party believes and claims to be the case. If so, if that is what emerges from an independent investigation, that will be the end of the matter and the 2 million signatories to the petition can put the matter behind them and get on with their lives.

If there is no independent investigation, these 2 million signatories will not believe that Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party actually won the election. For the next five years they will believe that his government is illegitimate. This is not a desirable state of affairs. 

A quote from AusAID’s website is in order:

Cambodia has made considerable progress in raising living standards but it remains one of the poorest countries in East Asia. About 25 per cent of the population live in poverty and income inequality is widening between urban and rural areas, where 90 per cent of poor people live. Cambodia's progress towards meeting its 2015 Millennium Development Goals is mixed. Promoting sustainable development in Cambodia is in Australia’s interest. A more stable, prosperous Cambodia will contribute to regional economic growth and assist in fighting transnational crime.

AusAID’s summary contains half truths and spin. ‘Making considerable progress’ is what NGOs, the World Bank, the IMF and other donors say and write when little or no progress at all has been made. 25% of the population live in poverty sounds much better than 40% suffering from malnutrition (despite billions of dollars in foreign aid this last decade) and the use of the expression ‘mixed’ in relation to results and effectiveness usually means ‘failure’.

It is the last sentence of the AusAID statement that is of interest here, however. It is in Australia’s interest that there be a “more stable, prosperous Cambodia.” A more stable Cambodia necessitates that the Cambodian people believe and accept that their government is a legitimate one. At least 2.2 million voters do not believe this to be the case as a result of the 28th July elections. It is in Australia’s interests that these 2.2million Cambodians have their doubts put to rest by the implementation of an independent investigation.

As for a ‘more prosperous’ Cambodia, this objective is not likely to occur unless and until there is rule of law in Cambodia; until corrupt politicians are not able to steal the nation’s natural resources for their own benefit with impunity; not able to steal the homes and land of Cambodians with the full knowledge that these poor people will find no redress, even if they could afford legal representation, in a corrupt court system.

Is Australia’s $97.2 million in aid benefiting the Cambodian people or is it enabling the Cambodian government to offload its responsibilities to its own people  - for poverty reduction, health and education etc - onto donor countries? If so, is it possible that we are, regardless of the generous intentions that underlie the giving of such aid, propping up a bad government?  And is it possible that we have led ourselves into a trap that is difficult to escape with this aid? If Australia were now (after all these years)  to tie its aid to the Cambodian government abiding by its own laws and ceasing to allow senior members of it from engaging in land grabbing and stealing national resources, what would Prime Minister Hun Sen’s response be? He has made it clear. “You cut off aid and it is the poor who will suffer.” Are we, perhaps, engaged in an unhealthy symbiotic relationship with Cambodia through our dispersement of aid that we cannot cease giving without harming the very people it is intended to help?

Given the sheer number of reported and well documented  ‘irregularities’ and the weight of evidence in support of electoral fraud, would it be unreasonable for yourself and Australia’s Foreign Minister, the Hon Julie Bishop, to tie our country’s $97.2 million in foreign aid to the establishment of an independent enquiry to determine who won the 28th July elections?

yours sincerely

James Ricketson

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