PHNOM PENH - The Australian government has told Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen that his recent threat to assault protesters when he visits the island continent later this month is unacceptable, as outrage over the remarks intensifies.
Last week, Hun Sen threatened to withdraw from the ASEAN-Australia Special Summit if he wasn't afforded sufficient respect and that he would follow home and beat anyone who burned an effigy of him.
Opposition labor party members of both houses of the Australian parliament were among the politicians who joined a growing chorus of condemnation to the remarks.
They included federal Labor member of parliament Mark Dreyfus, who told the Australian House of Representatives he "would not stand by while Hun Sen threatens to assault members of the Cambodian-Australian community," vowing to speak out against what Dreyfus said were the prime minister's human rights abuses.
"Australia has a proud history of passionate political expression and when Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen threatened to beat up Australians who protested his visit to the ASEAN summit in Sydney ... he was rightly condemned by thousands of Australians both within and outside the Australian-Cambodian community," he said.
At a Senate estimates committee hearing, Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong received an assurance that Cambodian Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials who met with the Australian ambassador had been told the threat was unacceptable.
"Yes, Senator, it's been made clear the threats of violence — that there is a right to freedom of protest, freedom of expression in Australia and that threats on Australian soil are not acceptable to the Australian government," said Julie Heckscher, first assistant secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade's Southeast Asia division.
Wong was also told that community groups had filed complaints to the Australian Federal Police and that the matter would be raised with Cambodian officials during the summit on March 17 and 18.
According to observers, the government in Canberra wants to build closer ties with the regional bloc through the summit and has little strategic interest in jeopardizing the effort by raising human rights transgressions of its neighbors.
Hun Sen's invective, however, has helped focus on his prolonged authoritarian crackdown, which has seen the opposition dissolved and its leader, Kem Sokha, jailed on espionage charges based on comments the latter made in Melbourne about grass-roots political strategy in 2013.
The fact that, for a second time, activities in Australia had been used as the basis for anti-democratic Cambodian government actions was "deeply concerning," Senator Wong said.
"Some might say stronger words might be required," she added.
Members of Melbourne's Cambodian-Australian community responded on Saturday with symbolism rather than words, defiantly igniting effigies of the prime minister in a demonstration of their democratic rights.
During a speech Thursday, Hun Sen appeared to accept their position while walking back his comments slightly, but stopping short of any kind of apology or retraction.
"And on previous days, [I] instigated it a bit and [they] burned my image everywhere. Burn [away]," Hun Sen said.
"My soul is at the dragon statues at the pagodas," he said in a reference to the symbol of the year he was born.
Cambodia's ambassador to Australia, Koy Kuong, speaking to reporters on the sidelines of an annual Foreign Ministry convention in Phnom Penh Tuesday, said, "Thus far, everything is positive with nothing driving the relationship backwards."
"No problem. Everything remains in good shape," Koy Kuong said.
He added that Hun Sen would not be the only ASEAN leader in line for a frosty reception from diaspora communities in Australia.
Australian Ambassador Angela Corcoron and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade media office did not respond to a VOA request for details of any discussions with the Australian Federal Police about Cambodian government officials.
Hun Sen's government has been extremely critical of perceived foreign intrusions into its sovereign affairs, going as far as to amend the constitution to declare its opposition to the practice. His government also alleges a vast international conspiracy to overthrow it is afoot.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan acknowledged that Hun Sen's remarks as reported would be construed as disrespecting Australia's sovereignty, but claimed the prime minister had been misquoted.
"I understand, we do understand that very well, but it is not my prime minister's intention to do this kind of stupid thing," he said.
"They just cut a part of that one, but the story relates to 2013, when Kem Sokha and Sam Rainsy held a demonstration," he added, suggesting the premier's threat had been in reference to this earlier event, not this month's ASEAN summit. Sam Rainsy is an opposition figure now living in self-imposed exile in France. Sam Rainsy fled charges he says were politically motivated.
During a Senate estimates hearing Thursday, Heckscher said she did not think the reporting of Hun Sen's comments was inaccurate.
Political Analyst Ou Virak, founder of the Cambodian research group Future Forum, said Hun Sen had not been misquoted in any way; but Ou Virak said he did not believe the inflammatory remarks would have any serious impact on the summit.
"I don't think any party involved in this is going to like to continue raising this for much longer. The only people who would like to raise it will be the opposition in Australia, which is actually going to make it politically difficult for the Australian government, but that's part of democracy," he said.
The comments had served to focus attention on Cambodia's recent human rights abuses though, he said.
The United States recently announced it was cutting millions of dollars in targeted aid programs because of what it called "recent setbacks" in democracy in Cambodia. The European Council suggested potential trade ramifications if the situation in Cambodia did not improve.
Kann Vicheika and Sun Narin contributed to this report.