Diasporic communities in democratic countries are a soft target for foreign authoritarian regimes. These communities are often small, widely dispersed, and don’t add up to a significant political constituency. They usually don’t get much media attention, either in their adopted countries or back home. Diaspora members often have family members and business interests in their countries of origin. So, they are an easy target for foreign dictatorships keen to stifle dissenting voices and opposition fundraising.
The picture has started to change with a speech on February 14 by Australian Minister of Home Affairs Clare O’Neil. She spoke of diaspora communities and their families back home being “threatened, harassed, or intimidated” because of protests in Australia. “This type of foreign interference is commonplace, it is happening around our country every day,” she said.
O’Neil named Iran as an offending government, and ABC reported that China, Cambodia, and Rwanda are also countries of concern. Iran and China will always get media attention because of their geopolitical importance. Diasporas from smaller countries are the easiest, and usually ignored targets.
Neither Cambodia nor Rwanda makes a serious attempt to hide its activities in foreign countries. Patrick Karegeya, a former Rwandan intelligence chief turned critic of the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), was killed in South Africa on New Year’s Eve in 2013. Rwandan President Paul Kagame denied ordering the killing, but said he wished he had.
Likewise, two elected Cambodian opposition lawmakers were beaten up outside the national assembly in October 2015 after a diaspora protest in Paris during a visit by Prime Minister Hun Sen. Visiting Australia in 2018, Hun Sen publicly threatened to beat up protestors. In December of last year, he told security officials to photograph diasporic protestors in Europe and display their pictures at Cambodia’s international airport. The families of the protestors will be getting security visits, Hun Sen said.
Post-genocide regimes such as those in Cambodia and Rwanda have difficulty in relinquishing methods developed in war. The Khmer Rouge were responsible for between 1.5 million and 2 million deaths in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979. The Rwandan government of Hutu President Juvénal Habyarimana committed genocide against the country’s Tutsis in the closing stages of the war which ended in 1994.
Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia since 1985, is a former Khmer Rouge commander. He defected to Vietnam in 1977 and took part in the Vietnamese invasion which ousted the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979. Kagame’s family was driven out of Rwanda by the 1959 Social Revolution which overthrew the old Tutsi ruling elite. Kagame led an invasion by Rwandan exiles from Uganda starting in 1990, and defeated Habyarimana’s forces in 1994.
The regimes differ in that there is no overlap in personnel between Kagame’s government and that of Habyarimana, while there are aspects of continuity between the pre-and post-1979 Cambodian regimes. There is no doubt that Kagame is a hardened soldier. He fought in the rebel Ugandan army which brought Yoweri Museveni to power in 1986, before leading the invasion of Rwanda.
Both Kagame and Hun Sen are intolerant of political opposition, while seeking to portray themselves as statesmen of international significance. Despite frequent criticism of their human rights records, both have enjoyed widespread – or at least passive – acceptance from democratic governments. Hun Sen in 2022 held the chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and had an official dinner with French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris in December. Rwanda has been recently condemned by Western governments for its alleged backing of the M23 insurgency in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Yet Kagame remains widely respected as an architect of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement.
The danger is that such international acceptance can serve as a carte blanche for repression. Investigative reporting by ABC in 2019 raised claims of a network of Rwandan agents living in Australia being used to threaten the diaspora. A source even told ABC that some Rwandan spies work within Australian government agencies and refugee service groups, where they can access, and misuse, personal information.
Intimidation and violence against the Rwandan diaspora in Australia, as well as Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, and South Africa, is a “very serious” problem, says David Himbara, a professor of international development based in Toronto.
There are only a handful of critics of the Rwandan regime in Australia, says Himbara, but the “paranoid” Kagame “does not take that lightly.” Himbara had spells as Kagame’s principal private secretary and head of strategy and policy between 2000 and 2009, and has family members in prison in Rwanda. He visited Australia shortly before COVID-19 and has a friend there who has been targeted by the Rwandan regime.
The Cambodian diaspora, in Australia and globally, is older and larger than that of Rwanda, and is a source of funding for the political opposition to Hun Sen. It’s hard to see what threat a few dissidents in Australia poses to Kagame. The root of the problem, Himbara says, is Kagame’s mentality and the fact that there has never been a peaceful Rwandan transfer of power: “Kagame is a killer. That’s why he’s in his position. It doesn’t stop, inside or outside of Rwanda.”
In February 2021, Rwandan opposition politician Seif Bamporiki was shot dead in Cape Town, South Africa. Witnesses say the gun used to kill him had a silencer, suggesting a professional approach rather a typical South African robbery. The Rwandan diaspora “is cut in half,” between Kagame’s supporters and opponents, Himbara says. “Either you support the regime, or you don’t. If you don’t support it, you are targeted. There is no question about this.”
Quieter forms of intimidation of Cambodians in Long Beach, California have been documented in research by Susan Needham and Schroedel Grubb that was published last year in the peer-reviewed academic journal Pacific Affairs. The research focuses on the Cambodian People’s Party Youth Organization (CPPYO), a youth section of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, which has branches in Australia, New Zealand, Europe, South Korea, Thailand, the U.S., and Canada. The research finds that out of concern for family members in Cambodia, many in the diaspora censor themselves on social media and in private telephone calls, knowing they are under surveillance by a control room run by Hun Sen’s son and heir apparent Hun Manet.
“There’s no doubt that Cambodia is one of the countries that Clare O’Neil has in mind,” says Mu Sochua, vice president of the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), the country’s banned opposition party. Mu Sochua is exiled from Cambodia and based in the U.S. “Our chapters in Australia have collected a great deal of credible information on the ongoing activities of the ruling party targeting CNRP members in Australia.”
“Hun Sen thinks that no-one will notice or care if he and his security apparatus intimidate Cambodians living abroad,” Sochua says. “Clare O’Neil has shown that he is wrong. Australia should take the next step and explicitly name Cambodia as a country which intimidates members of the diaspora.”
Simply naming the guilty regimes is unlikely to change long-standing methods of repression unless it is backed up by action. Himbara says the international community should act as it did in 2012, when the M23’s capture of the DRC city of Goma prompted the U.S. and the EU to freeze some financial support to Rwanda. “This is what the international community has to do but it is not doing it,” he says.
Mu Sochua says that democratic countries should impose “co-ordinated asset freezes and visa sanctions for all those who play a part in Hun Sen’s repressive machinery.” She adds, “Concrete and coordinated measures are needed to tackle corruption at the highest level. Ill-gotten wealth is the lifeblood of autocratic regimes.”
Invitations to comment on claims of intimidation and killings were sent to the Cambodian embassy in Australia and Rwanda’s High Commission in Singapore, which provides Rwanda’s Australian diplomatic representation. Neither responded by the time the article was written.