Australia’s perception of the July elections and how the new government conducts itself may play a key role in determining if Australia’s military aid organization resumes assistance to Cambodia.
Australia’s Defense Corp suspended operations after the factional fighting in July 1997, and future programs remain in question, said Col Dougall McMillan, defense attache for the Australian Embassy.
Defense Corp has provided training in Australia for selected RCAF officers, distributed medical supplies and helped install communications networks for military hospitals.
Whether or not Defense Corp operations will resume depends on the evaluation of the July 26 polls and the behavior of the new Cambodian government, as well as how the new Australian government, to be elected Oct 3, will view Australia’s overall long-term commitment to Southeast Asia, McMillan said.
So far, the evaluation has been mixed.
On Aug 24, an Australian senate committee seminar featuring several Cambodia experts debated whether the July elections could be described as “free and fair.” Committee members included former Untac commander Gen John Sanderson, former Australian Ambassador to Cambodia Tony Kevin and scholar Milton Osborne.
After a heated debate, the committee members came to a general consensus recommending the continuation of aid, but graded the elections a “C-minus,” according to Human Rights Watch.
Australian Ambassador Malcom Leader said Tuesday the Senate committee’s evaluation was not binding, and that at this stage funding only from the Defense Corp remains suspended.
The Australian Agency for International Development, an arm of the Australian government, provides about $18.5 million of aid to Cambodia annually and employs about 75 affiliated workers.
Its programs range from agricultural research and promoting primary health care to providing assistance for demining projects.
While AusAID continued to operate during the factional fighting last year, Bill Costello, the first secretary of the organization, said Monday that to increase funding for aid programs, the Cambodian government should reform revenue collection among other reforms.
According to a summary of the meeting provided by Human Rights Watch, Sanderson held the view that the election had not been free and fair, and that the government lacked a genuine commitment to the rights of individual Cambodians. He argued that Australia’s long-term policy toward Cambodia should be to oppose authoritarianism.
Kevin spoke of the dangers of demonizing one side of Cambodian politics. In the past, he has defended Second Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Osborne said Australia could not wash its hands of Cambodia completely, but that this did not mean the Australian government should only highlight the positive elements without also mentioning the negative parts of the elections.