With the recent release of hundreds of cables from the US embassy in Phnom Penh, the WikiLeaks spotlight turns to Cambodia, a fast growing country of 15 million people and number seven on the list of recipient countries of Australian aid.

Confidential cables leaked include detailed diplomatic manoeuvring by the international community, especially the US, the UK, France, Japan and Australia, over the UN-sponsored Khmer Rouge Tribunal (KRT). The KRT is tasked with prosecuting former regime leaders responsible for the genocidal “Killing Fields” of the 1970s that saw several million people killed.

In 2009, Australia risked a breach of international unity when it sided with the Cambodian government against the United Nations on anti-corruption mechanisms for the KRT. Australia’s main concerns appeared to be mission creep, cost and a desire to let the Cambodian people own the process.

One cable suggests Australian ambassador Margaret Adamson had inside knowledge of the court, saying “sources at the court told [Adamson] the Pre-Trial Chamber (PTC) had reached a decision on UN co-prosecutor Robert Petit’s appeal to indict up to six additional suspects in a Case 3 at the KRT. She stated that the decision — which she did not reveal — was not being announced until the judges thought that the time was right.”

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There are also hints that Australia and the Cambodian expat community living in Australia are heavily involved in trying to bolster the opposition in Cambodia. One opposition MP told the US ambassador he would get more support locally by being a “lesser opposition voice in parliament” but more support from richer expats in Australia and elsewhere “by positioning himself as a strident voice” against the government. In 2007, media freedom was so “fragile“, non-government candidates “had to buy airtime on the state-owned television network with Australian funding”.

Of particular interest is one colourful cable describing Cambodia’s “top 10 tycoons”. One is Kith Meng, a dual Cambodian-Australian citizen with a BA from Australian National University. Kith Meng, aka “Mr Rough Stuff”, is described in the US cable as a “ruthless gangster” and “is notorious for using his bodyguards to coerce others into brokering deals”. As CEO of Royal Group of Companies, he runs the influential Cambodia Television Network, several gambling companies and is an “exclusive distributor of Canon products”. He owns 45% of ANZ Royal Bank, the local joint-venture of ANZ bank.

Less successful in Phnom Penh than Kith Meng is Kevin Rudd’s Asia Pacific Community proposal, with the Cambodian foreign minister Hor Namhong expressing “frustration” in a private meeting with the Americans in 2010 “that initiatives such as Australia’s Asia Pacific Community (APC) result in duplication of existing frameworks such as that of APEC, ARF, EAS, and ASEAN”. The ambassador noted that this echoed comments by the Cambodian Prime Minister in January and “indicated the timing of the APC is not right nor is its role in the region clear”.

Yesterday, Crikey reported cables revealing that rich Cambodian parents are sending their drug-addicted children for detox in Australia and China to avoid the social stigma of drug use and the poor quality of rehabilitation centres in Cambodia. The details were buried in one of 777 US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks two weeks ago in a rare large dump of every cable from an American embassy.

Overall, Australia’s engagement with Cambodia, especially Canberra’s role in supporting the KRT, appears to be popular with the Cambodian people. The five main supporters of the KRT — the US, Japan, the UK, France and Australia — all having the most favourable ratings in a public opinion poll taken in 2008.