Australia blames Cambodia for 'unfortunate' champagne toast

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
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

The Turnbull government has distanced itself from a toasting ceremony marking the upgrading of diplomatic ties with Cambodia, blaming officials in Phnom Penh for insisting on the clinking of champagne glasses.

Fairfax Media revealed last week that Australia's ambassador in Phnom Penh, Angela Corcoran, toasted the agreement with Cambodia's Minister of Foreign Affairs Prak Sokhonn at a time human rights groups are calling for punitive sanctions to be imposed on the regime in Phnom Penh over its ruthless dismantling of democracy.

The toasting was widely ridiculed. Labor's foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong asked during a parliamentary hearing in Canberra whether Australia raising concerns about Cambodia's deteriorating human rights situation and images of toasting champagne was an "unfortunate juxtaposition".

Philip Green, the Department of Foreign Affairs' First Secretary for South-East Asia, said Ms Corcoran was "put in an invidious situation".

He told the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee that Australia's embassy only learnt of the champagne toasting shortly before the ceremony began and asked for it not to happen.

Mr Green said Cambodian officials insisted the toasting was an "important protocol" in the light of the attendance of the country's foreign minister, and made clear the ceremony would not go ahead without it.

"The ambassador did not want to make an issue of the situation and proceeded with the signing ceremony arrangements," he said.

The comments risk straining ties between Australia and Cambodia's autocratic Prime Minister Hun Sen three years after the Turnbull government signed a $55 million agreement with Cambodia to accept refugees from Nauru.

Only a handful of refugees have agreed to make the journey to one of Asia's poorest countries where corruption is endemic.

Australia's then immigration minister Scott Morrison was ridiculed for toasting his Cambodian counterpart over the agreement in a similar champagne sipping ceremony in 2014.

In a statement last week, the Cambodian government said the signing of a memorandum of understanding to establish senior official talks marked "a new step in enhancing the existing friendly relations and bilateral cooperation between the two countries based on the principle of equality, mutual interest and respect".

But Mr Green told the Canberra committee he wouldn't categorise the agreement as an upgrading of ties but more a "new, extra dimension" in the relationship.

Under the pretence of stopping a conspiracy to topple his regime, Mr Hun Sen has forced the collapse of the main opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party. Its leaders are now in jail or exile.

Human rights and community activists are being targeted in a campaign of harassment and many have fled the country.

A growing number of non-government organisations are facing suspension or expulsion and Cambodia's independent media outlets have come under attack, forcing the closure of the Cambodia Daily newspaper and non-government radios.

Long-time expatriate residents, facing increasing harassment as authorities crackdown on work permits and long-stay visas, say a climate of fear pervades the capital at a level they have not seen for more than a decade.

And the arrest of Australian filmmaker James Ricketson on espionage charges has stoked fears that foreigners risk being falsely accused of involvement in the supposed plot to bring down the regime, and could face years in jail.

Fifty human rights and civil society groups across the world have asked for a re-opening of the 1991 Paris Peace Conference which brokered an end to Cambodia's decades-long civil unrest.

Australia's former foreign Minister Gareth Evans played a key role in forging the agreement which stipulated Cambodia must remain a democracy and, if it was sliding into a dictatorship, countries that signed it must convene a meeting to review the situation.

Asked about the move, a spokeswoman for the Department of Foreign Affairs did not rule out Australia's support.

"Australia would carefully consider any request by the UN Secretary-General for consultations with members of the Paris Peace Conference," the spokeswoman said.

"To be effective, any such discussion would require engagement by the Cambodian government."

Mr Hun Sen, a former commander of the murderous Khmer Rouge who defected to Vietnam before being installed as Cambodia's leader three decades ago, has warned people to stop talking about human rights and democracy guarantees that were written into the Paris agreement, saying it is now only a "ghost" of the past.

This story Australia blames Cambodia for 'unfortunate' champagne toast first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.