Australia strengthens ties with Cambodia as Sweden 'reconsiders engagement'

Australia strengthens ties with Cambodia as Sweden 'reconsiders engagement'

Australia strengthens ties with Cambodia as Sweden 'reconsiders engagement'

Updated 20 October 2017, 19:20 AEDT

Australia moves to strengthen diplomatic ties with Cambodia as other nations move in the opposite direction, rethinking their engagement with the increasingly authoritarian kingdom.

Australia will begin holding regular high-level talks with senior members of the Cambodian Government, despite other countries rethinking their engagement with the increasingly authoritarian kingdom.

The agreement was signed on October 18 and the first talks will be in Cambodia "in the coming months".

"We look forward to exchanging views on our bilateral cooperation, including Australia's development program in Cambodia, two-way education ties, our defence cooperation program, as well as security and law enforcement engagement," Angela Corcoran, Australian Ambassador to Cambodia, said.

"We will also use the senior officials' talks to discuss shared challenges, including transnational crime, irregular migration, and human rights."

The centrepiece of the diplomatic relationship is the $55 million refugee resettlement deal, which has seen a handful of refugees transferred from Nauru to Cambodia.

The deal was signed — to the clinking of champagne glasses — in September 2014, but it is not clear when it expires.

"What is extremely problematic with Australia's blossoming relationship with Cambodia is that the Federal Government has dropped any pretence of supporting the growth of democracy or defence of human rights," said Lee Morgenbesser, a lecturer at the School of Government and International Relations at Griffith University and author of Behind the Facade: Elections under Authoritarianism in South-East Asia.

"The Government won't admit it, but the refugee resettlement deal is now the cornerstone of Australia's engagement with Cambodia."

Australia's move to strengthen diplomatic ties comes as other nations move in the opposite direction.

A Swedish diplomat said the Scandinavian nation was rethinking its relationship with Cambodia, due to the country's moves away from democracy.

Prime Minister Hun Sen has ruled for 32 years but faces a surging opposition party and a young electorate fed up with decades of corruption and nepotism.

The Cambodian Government is trying to dissolve the opposition party and give its seats to a failed royalist party, in the lead up to an election next year.

The opposition party's president Kem Sokha is in pre-trial detention on treason charges, based on a speech he made in Melbourne, while half the party's elected members have fled the country.

Sweden's ambassador for human rights, Annika Ben David, expressed deep concern at the unfolding political events in the country, during a visit last week.

"I have stressed to the representatives of the Government of Cambodia that should [the opposition] Cambodia National Rescue Party be dissolved, this will force my Government to rethink our engagement in Cambodia," Ms Ben David told local media.

Previously, Sweden announced it was reviewing aid to Cambodia, after donating more than $127 million in five years.

Activists within Cambodia have also called on Japan to withdraw funding for elections, saying a vote that does not include the country's only major opposition party would be a farce.