Amid the euphoria of the stunning victory by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy in Myanmar on November 8, and largely unnoticed by Australia, faux and quasi-democracies in south-east Asia are under renewed threat.

As Australia secretly sent one more lonely refugee from Nauru to Cambodia last week, and into in a rapidly deteriorating political situation, the region should be a huge concern for the Turnbull government: economically, strategically and from the viewpoint of protecting the millions of Australians who visit these countries for tourism and business each year.

Turnbull has shown impressive focus from the outset of his prime ministership by taking the argument to China on its aggression in the South China Sea, warning the country quite rightly last week that it risks starting a war with its decision to build islands out of the sea and claim territory to which is has particularly weak (even non-existent) claims under a specious, historical sphere-of-influence argument.

So here’s hoping he can be equally honest with the rest of the leaders in the region after making a perhaps understandably tentative start with Indonesian President Joko Widodo, in light of the insensitive, heavy-handed approach of his predecessors.

Collectively, the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations is Australia’s No. 3 trading partner, and its strategic importance — sitting between Australia and China — is clear.

Australia’s primary focus right now should be on Cambodia, the country with which the Abbott government did its grubby deal on refugees. Last week, one more Myanmar man was sent to Cambodia for four years of luxury living and healthcare courtesy of the Australian taxpayer. That makes five refugees who have gone to Cambodia, despite no doubt hideously expensive efforts by visiting officials from Canberra and their hardworking minions at home to drum up volunteers. A totting up of the real costs, including departmental and ministerial time and resources, would doubtless be even more eye-watering than the headline figure of $40 million-plus (that’s just Hun Sen’s payment and doesn’t include in-country resettlement costs).

One refugee was returned to his native Myanmar last week, and some nifty detective work by Fairfax’s Bangkok-based Lindsay Murdoch uncovered departmental incompetence that had wrongly classified him as a persecuted ethnic Muslim Rohingya — though taking the time to look at a few pictures of Rohingya, or even a simple language test, would have shown that classification to be wrong.

Cambodia holds elections, but it has long been ruled by Prime Minister-cum-dictator Hun Sen. Its political environment is fast deteriorating only 28 months after the disputed general election result in which Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party squeaked home with easily it’s thinnest-ever majority.

It took a year for the Sam Rainsy-headed Cambodia National Rescue Party to take its seats in parliament under a deal in which its senior representatives were given leadership of five of the parliament’s nine committees. In recent months, however, the chimera of unity has cracked and is now all but shattered.

In late October, two members of the CNRP were beaten outside the national assembly, and on November 13 an arrest warrant was issued for Sam Rainsy while he was on a trip to Japan and South Korea on a seven-year-old defamation charge. Rainsy has not returned to Cambodia since.

Kem Sokha, the CNRP deputy, has been dumped as vice-president of the National Assembly, activists are being jailed in increasing numbers, and observers believe the next round of local election in 2016 is now in doubt. This is the regime that Turnbull, care of his predecessor, now finds himself in a deal with.

Quite apart from this, Cambodia, in recent years, has proven itself to be the chief spoiler in any united front by ASEAN against China in the dispute with five of its nations: Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and tiny, oil-rich Brunei. For want of a better phrase, it appears to be firmly in China’s pocket.

In recent years, Australian prime ministers have had a poor record in visiting ASEAN nations outside regular ASEAN meetings. Turnbull made a good start in Indonesia earlier this month and it was handy that the APEC meeting was held in the Philippines, a nation that is once again emerging as a key player in the US-led regional defence alliance, which includes Japan and Australia. Curiously, though, nothing more on any decision by the Philippines to act as a processing country for Manus Island detainees.

But it is nothing short of a disgrace that Australia continued to support Cambodia with the refugee dollars — not to mention a fistful of aid and countless other blandishments — when other far more deserving nations such as Myanmar and Laos had tens of millions of dollars in aid cut in Joe Hockey’s ill-fated 2014 budget.

Turnbull is far from an international neophyte so he will know full well how bad the situation is in Cambodia — and it is getting worse. That Australian officials are still showering refugees with poor English and nil understanding of the real situation in Cambodia with lies is an insult to both the refugees in question and the taxpayers footing the bill.

After that, Turnbull and co have the rest of the region to take stock of, and the selection of the next secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (incumbent Peter Varghese called time on his diplomatic career last week) will be telling.

On-the-ground experience in the region, one would have thought, would be critical. The weight and the opinion of the better judges in and around Australia’s diplomatic corps would suggest that Greg Moriarty, who was the envoy to Jakarta until 2014 and one of the DFAT deputies, would be a fine choice who would offer Julie Bishop and her boss the frank and fearless advice they are going to need.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey