Cambodia country brief

Australia-Cambodia Relations


Australia entered into diplomatic relations with Cambodia more than 60 years ago. Australia's strong support for the Cambodian Peace Process in the late 1980s and early 1990s, including our lead role in the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (1992-93), still resonates positively with Cambodians. Both countries are working closely to combat people smuggling and trafficking, child sex tourism, narcotics trafficking and terrorism.

Australia maintains a strong commitment to Cambodia's development. This is reflected in our Official Development Assistance (ODA) to Cambodia. Through our ODA, we are working with Cambodia to improve productivity in agriculture, strengthen governance, health, and infrastructure and promote gender equality. Australia also has a defence cooperation program with Cambodia which supports counter-terrorism, maritime security and English language training.

The bilateral relationship is supported by high-level exchanges. Peter Dutton, Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, visited Phnom Penh on 12-13 March 2015 to meet senior Cambodian officials. Scott Morrison, the then Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, visited Phnom Penh on 3-4 April and 26-27 September 2014. During the latter visit he signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the Government of the Kingdom of Cambodia and the Government of Australia, relating to the settlement of refugees from Nauru in Cambodia. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Julie Bishop, visited Phnom Penh on 22 February 2014. During the visit she had meetings with Prime Minister Hun Sen, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Hor Namhong, and Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior Sar Kheng. She also had productive discussions with Australian and Cambodian business leaders.

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Interior, Sar Kheng, visited Australia on 24 March 2015 as a Guest of the Australian Government. During his visit, he signed an MoU between the Government of the Kingdom of Cambodia and the Government of Australia on Immigration Cooperation.

Political Context

Cambodia’s most recent elections were held on 28 July 2013 in a largely peaceful atmosphere. However, allegations of irregularities in voting lists and on polling day led the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) to reject the result (the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won 68 seats to the CNRP’s 55 – a loss of 22 seats for the CPP). This led to a political impasse lasting close to 12 months while the CNRP boycotted the National Assembly, demanding electoral reform and seeking to bring forward the next National Assembly elections scheduled for 2018.

The political deadlock was finally resolved on 22 July 2014 when the CPP and CNRP reached an agreement which allowed CNRP MPs-elect to end their boycott of the National Assembly, and to commence discussions on electoral and parliamentary reform. On 19 March 2015, the National Assembly unanimously passed new election laws agreed to by both parties. On 9 April, the National Assembly voted in National Election Committee members.

Bilateral economic and trade relationship

Total two-way trade in merchandise (goods) between Australia and Cambodia in 2014 was approximately $162 million.

Australia's exports of merchandise to Cambodia in 2014, valued at $43 million, included:

  • Wheat ($13 million)
  • Cereal preparations ($7 million)
  • Prams, toys, games and sporting goods ($4 million)
  • Beef ($2 million)

Australia's imports of merchandise from Cambodia in 2014, valued at $119 million, included:

  • Clothing ($97 million)
  • Footwear ($9 million)
  • Made up textile articles ($6 million)
  • Motorcycles and cycles ($2 million)

Australian Government Trade and Investment Strategies

Australia and Cambodia are parties to the ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement which entered into force on 1 January 2010. Australia and Cambodia are also negotiating parties to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership agreement. As a least developed country, Cambodia’s products are granted tariff-free access to Australia. Cambodia and Australia have a bilateral market access agreement which was concluded as part of the process of Cambodia's accession to the WTO in October 2004.

Trade has been recognised as integral to the region's efforts to reduce poverty and expand economic growth. Australia is working with ASEAN regionally to help developing countries integrate into the global marketplace. Bilaterally, Australia is working with the Cambodian Government to promote economic growth, including through the private sector, reduce poverty, and to promote good governance and sustainable development in Cambodia.

The Australian Chamber of Commerce (AusCham) Cambodia was established in 1995 to promote the interests of the Australian business community. Membership spans a wide-range of sectors, including construction, law, transportation, medical and education.

Export Opportunities

There are increasing opportunities for Australian trade and investment in Cambodia, particularly in education and agriculture. Demand for quality education is increasing. Around 60 per cent of the population is under the age of 30, enrolment rates in school are improving and there is a growing middle class able to afford private education.

While it remains a relatively small market, Cambodia’s strong economic growth and young population has seen student numbers to Australia grow rapidly over the past decade. If current trends continue, there could be over 2,000 enrolments from Cambodia in Australia in 2020. Strong growth in the number of Cambodians studying in Thailand and Malaysia also suggests there is demand for lower-cost options, such as training delivered in-country, or in the region, by Australian providers.

Australia is already well positioned in the Cambodian market. Over the past 20 years, the high-profile Australia Awards Scholarships program has helped build a reputation for quality. Australian-owned IDP Education is the leading education agent and runs the largest English-language school. Several Australian universities have already established a presence through development work and student mobility programs.

ANZ opened a joint venture bank with Cambodia's Royal Group - ANZ Royal Bank - in 2005. Other Australian companies are providing financial and professional services in Cambodia. In 2014, Cambodia agreed to Australian health protocols allowing the import of Australian feeder and slaughter cattle.

Economic overview

The Cambodian economy is growing rapidly on the back of four main sectors: garments, tourism, agribusiness, and construction. Cambodia's economy recovered strongly from the global economic downturn. Its real GDP growth for 2014 was estimated at 7 per cent and the outlook for 2015 remains positive.

Cambodia has a relatively open trading regime and a wide range of commercial laws which it has had since it acceded to the WTO in 2004. Cambodia is currently preparing for the commencement of the ASEAN Economic Community, which aims to establish ASEAN as a single market and production base by the end of 2015.

Foreign Policy

China is one of Cambodia’s most important partners. The relationship is underpinned by close political and economic links and by the large ethnic Chinese community in Cambodia. There are regular high level exchanges between the two countries. In 2012, China provided over USD460 million in aid and was Cambodia's principal source of imports.

Cambodia's foreign relations have historically been influenced by its geographical position between its two large and populous neighbours, Thailand and Vietnam. Cooperation between Vietnam and Cambodia is wide-ranging and underpinned by close political, economic and security links. Vietnam is Cambodia’s second largest import source after China, and the countries have set a goal of increasing bilateral trade to USD 5 billion in 2015. There is a sizeable ethnic Vietnamese community in Cambodia. Thailand is Cambodia's third largest import source and has been a key investor in Cambodia, including in the tourism sector. While relations are comprehensive and generally good, border demarcation has been an occasional irritant, fuelled by historical sensitivities, and tensions have flared periodically in the past.

Japan is one of the largest donors to Cambodia, and there are regular high-level visits between the two countries. Prime Minister Hun Sen paid an official visit to Japan in December 2013, during which he signed a strategic partnership agreement. The Republic of Korea is also a close and active partner, and a significant donor to Cambodia.

The United States is Cambodia's major export market and home to a significant Cambodian diaspora. The bilateral relationship is strengthening following the US rebalance to Asia – President Obama became the first incumbent US President to visit the country during the November 2012 East Asia Summit – and economic and development links continue to grow. US assistance to Cambodia is focused on governance, human rights, education and health.

Commensurate with its role as Cambodia's former colonial administrator, France continues to take an active interest in Cambodia's development. French business linkages are also significant.

Cambodia is increasingly active in regional fora. It became a member of ASEAN in April 1999 and participated in the ASEAN Regional Forum the same year. Cambodia chaired ASEAN and the East Asia Summit in 2012, having previously chaired ASEAN in 2003.

Human Rights

The process of rebuilding Cambodia following the Khmer Rouge era continues. Despite democratic freedoms in Cambodia, there are periodic reports of intimidation and political violence. Australia’s statement to the Universal Periodic Review in 2014 can be found here.

The Cambodian Government is working to develop legislation in a range of sectors to strengthen Cambodia's judicial system and to address inconsistencies in application of the law. Australia's development assistance program has, since 1997, helped to strengthen Cambodia’s legal and judicial system, including providing training and infrastructure support to assist reform.

The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (Khmer Rouge Tribunal)

In 1997, the Cambodian Government asked the United Nations to assist with the establishment of an internationally credible tribunal to try Khmer Rouge (KR) leaders most responsible for the humanitarian and other crimes committed between 17 April 1975 and 6 January 1979. UN Chief Negotiator Hans Correll and Cambodian Senior Minister Sok An signed an agreement on the terms of a tribunal in June 2003.

The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) sit within Cambodia's court system. They comprise a pre-trial chamber, a trial chamber and a supreme court chamber. The ECCC is a hybrid court, with a mixture of Cambodian and international judges presiding over each chamber. Decisions are made by a super-majority requiring the agreement of some Cambodian and some international judges. The first Cambodian and international judges (including Australian Rowan Downing QC) and prosecutors were sworn in on 3 July 2006.

Australia has to date committed $26.22 million to the ECCC. The former head of Tuol Sleng detention centre, Eav Guek Kaing (known as "Duch"), was the first defendant to be tried. On 26 July 2010, "Duch" was found guilty of crimes against humanity and grave breaches of the 1949 Geneva Conventions. He was sentenced to 35 years imprisonment. On 3 February 2012, his sentence was increased on appeal to life imprisonment.

The second case against the most senior surviving leaders of the former Khmer Rouge regime is underway. The defendants are Nuon Chea, known as "Brother No 2", and Khieu Samphan, former KR head of state. They are charged with genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and serious Cambodian domestic crimes. Two other defendants in the case were Ieng Sary, former KR foreign minister who died in March 2013, and former Minister of Social Welfare, Ieng Thirith, who has been declared unfit to stand trial. On 7 August 2014, a judgment of life imprisonment was handed down in the first phase of the case against Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea (the defendants have appealed the verdict). Phase Two of Case 002 commenced on 17 October 2014. Charges include genocide and other grave crimes committed on a national scale. On 3 March 2015, two further individuals were charged in absentia for alleged crimes during the Khmer Rouge era: former KR Navy Commander Meas Muth in Case 003 and former KR District Commander Im Chaem in Case 004. On 27 March 2015, a second individual was charged in Case 004: former deputy Central Zone secretary, Ao An (also known as Ta An).

Cambodian Community in Australia

Small numbers of Cambodian refugees began arriving in Australia after Pol Pot gained power in 1975, and numbers peaked in the 1980s. Between April 1975 and June 1986, 12,813 arrivals were sponsored under the Refugee and Special Humanitarian Program. Family stream migration increased the numbers of Cambodian-born people in Australia to over 20,000 by the mid-1990s. According to the 2011 census, there were around 28,000 Cambodian-born people and their families living in Australia.

In 2014, there were over 1,200 enrolments by Cambodians in Australian education institutions.

Australian Community in Cambodia

The Australian community in Cambodia is modest. Approximately 2,500-3,000 Australians are resident in Cambodia, most being dual Cambodian-Australian citizens or expatriates involved in development assistance work or business. Tourism, however, continues to grow: approximately 134,000 Australians visited Cambodia in 2014.

People smuggling

The Cambodian and Australian Governments enjoy high levels of cooperation in efforts to combat people smuggling and trafficking in people. Australia maintains an Australian Federal Police liaison office in Phnom Penh to encourage and assist Cambodian law enforcement agencies to deal with transnational crime, including people smuggling. An MoU between the two countries which provides a framework for cooperative activities designed to combat people smuggling was signed in 2002.

On 26 September 2014, the then Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, Scott Morrison, and Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior, Sar Kheng, signed an MoU between the Government of the Kingdom of Cambodia and the Australian Government relating to the settlement of refugees from Nauru in Cambodia.

Peter Dutton, Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, and Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Interior, Sar Kheng, also signed an MoU between the Government of the Kingdom of Cambodia and the Government of Australia on Immigration Cooperation on 24 March 2015, during Sar Kheng’s visit to Australia.

Child sex tourism

The Australian Federal Police liaison office in Phnom Penh and the Cambodian National Police are providing mechanisms to assist effective investigation and prosecution of suspected child sex tourism offenders in Cambodia.

The Australian Government also supports the work of non-government organisations and international organisations in Cambodia providing direct support for victims of child sexual abuse, prevention programs and awareness-raising and advocacy activities.

General Information


Cambodia is divided into 24 provinces plus the municipality of Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city. A province usually has the same name as its major town. The city of Phnom Penh consists of four urban districts and three outlying districts and has a population of over one million people. During the dry season, many thousands of people move into the city from the countryside to seek work.


Cambodia is the most ethnically homogenous country in South-East Asia. Ethnic Khmer comprise 94 per cent of the population. The two main minority groups are ethnic Chinese (about 4 per cent) and the ethnic Vietnamese (about 1.1 per cent). The Chinese are primarily engaged in commerce, while the Vietnamese are mainly farmers, fishermen and semi-skilled workers. Two Islamic communities in Cambodia, the Cham and Chvea, represent 3.4 to 5 per cent of the population. A number of indigenous hill tribes live in the remote north-east of Cambodia. 90 per cent of Cambodians live in the central lowlands region.

Language and Religion

The official language of Cambodia is Khmer. English is the preferred second language, particularly among younger people. French is often spoken by the older generation of Cambodians.

Cambodia's population is predominantly Buddhist. Theravada Buddhism is a pervasive influence in Cambodian life and was reinstituted in 1989 as the state religion. Representatives of the Buddhist priesthood are on certain government bodies. Most villages have a wat (temple) and monks are a common sight around the country. Cambodia has a small Islamic community and a very small Christian community. Astrology is also widely practised.

Political History

Khmer Empire (9th to 14th centuries)

Modern-day Cambodia is the successor state of the Khmer empire, which ruled much of what is now Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand during the Angkorian period (9th to 14th centuries). Following its decline, Khmer history is dominated for about a century and a half by dynastic rivalries and warfare with the Vietnamese and the Thais.

The French Protectorate (1863-1953)

In 1941, the French protectorate placed Prince Norodom Sihanouk on the Cambodian throne. King Norodom Sihanouk dissolved the national parliament in January 1953, declared martial law and worked to gain international support for his country's independence. Cambodia was proclaimed on independent in 1953 and recognised by the Geneva Conference of May 1954.

Cambodian Independent Rule (1953-1975)

In 1955, King Norodom Sihanouk abdicated from the throne, and entered politics. He dominated Cambodian politics for the next 15 years. King Norodom Sihanouk drew closer to North Vietnam and China and broke off diplomatic relations with Washington in 1965. As the war in Vietnam intensified in 1969, the United States began a program of bombing suspected Viet Cong base camps in Cambodia. During this period, the Cambodian guerrilla movement, the Khmer Rouge (KR), gained in strength and gradually assumed control over large parts of the countryside. In March 1970, General Lon Nol instigated a coup d'état and established a republic. Norodom Sihanouk established a government in exile in Beijing.

Khmer Rouge (1975-1979)

On 17 April 1975 Phnom Penh surrendered to the KR, led by Pol Pot (Saloth Sar). The KR implemented a radical and brutal policy of restructuring society. The country was renamed Democratic Kampuchea, currency was abolished and the cities were emptied. It is believed that up to one quarter of the Cambodian population died as a direct result of the policies of the KR Government. Norodom Sihanouk was permitted by the Khmer Rouge to return to Phnom Penh in December 1975. He presided over the promulgation of a new constitution in 1976 as Chief of State, but subsequently resigned this position. He was confined to the royal palace until Pol Pot was overthrown.

People's Republic of Kampuchea (1979-1985)

On 7 January 1979, Vietnamese soldiers entered Phnom Penh toppling the Pol Pot Government and established the People's Republic of Kampuchea (PRK), led by former KR officer Heng Samrin, who had fled to Vietnam in 1978, and Pen Sovan (until the latter's downfall in 1981). Hun Sen, a former regimental KR commander (who fled to Vietnam in 1977) became Foreign Minister. The ousted KR forces continued their resistance from bases along the Thai border. In 1982, with other elements opposing the PRK, the KR formed the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea (CGDK) as a government in exile. Following a renewed attack on their bases in 1985, the KR retreated into Thailand. The KR, and to a lesser extent the other two factions of the CGDK, continued to wage a guerrilla war throughout the country during the 1980s, sustained by external support from countries opposed to the PRK.

The State of Cambodia (1985-1993)

In 1985, Hun Sen, at the age of 33, became Prime Minister in the government of the PRK in which his party, the Cambodian People's Party (CPP) held power. In September 1989 Vietnam withdrew its troops from Cambodia under international pressure and the PRK was renamed the State of Cambodia (SOC).

In May 1991, the warring Cambodian factions finally agreed on a voluntary ceasefire. On 23 October 1991, a Peace Agreement was signed in Paris, establishing the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC). Australia actively supported the peace process and Australians played key roles in UNTAC. Australian Lieutenant-General John Sanderson, as Force Commander, led a force of personnel from 46 countries, including Australia, to supervise the ceasefire including demobilising and disarming military groups and demining.

Royal Government of Cambodia (1993 to present)

1993 National Assembly Elections

The first elections, conducted in May under the auspices of UNTAC, were generally regarded as an outstanding success with over 90 per cent of the 4.5 million electors turning out to vote. A coalition was formed, led jointly by Prince Norodom Ranariddh, leader of the National United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful and Cooperative Cambodia (FUNCINPEC) as 'First' Prime Minister and Cambodian People's Party (CPP) leader Hun Sen as 'Second' Prime Minister. A new constitution was promulgated on 24 September 1993, transforming Cambodia into a Constitutional Monarchy under King Norodom Sihanouk.

Prince Ranariddh exiled

After a period of calm, the political atmosphere began to deteriorate in mid-1994. By 1997 the two coalition parties were competing to gain the support of armed groups, including KR remnants. This precipitated a military clash in July 1997 when the CPP accused Prince Norodom Ranariddh and his supporters of planning a coup d'état and moved decisively against him. A new first Prime Minister, Ung Huot (FUNCINPEC), was appointed by the National Assembly in August 1997 to replace Norodom Ranariddh whose forces had been decisively defeated.

1998 National Assembly Elections

Ranariddh and other opposition exiled politicians returned to Cambodia in early 1998, following a concerted international diplomatic intervention by the 'Friends of Cambodia', including Australia, working closely with the ASEAN Troika (the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia). Pressure from the 'Friends' and the ASEAN Troika also led to a National Electoral Commission and a Constitutional Council being established to prepare for the 26 July elections. Twenty-two Australian observers were deployed. This period was marked by violence and intimidation, although official observers reported the polling process itself was conducted satisfactorily.

The CPP failed to achieve the two-thirds majority in the Assembly required to form government and a coalition was formed with FUNCINPEC, which held the second highest number of seats. Sam Rainsy accepted the role of opposition leader. Hun Sen was sworn in as Prime Minister and Prince Norodom Ranariddh as President of the National Assembly in November.

2002 Commune Council (Local) Elections

The first Commune Council elections took place in February 2002. The local elections were an important step in the implementation of democracy at grassroots level but were marked by violence. The CPP won an overwhelming victory.

2003 National Assembly Elections

Cambodia's third national elections were held on 27 July 2003. Australia provided around $1 million in support and sent a small parliamentary observer delegation. Violence and intimidation in the lead-up to and following the election was less than in previous elections and the process was generally considered to be credible. The CPP failed to achieve the two-thirds majority required at that time by the constitution to rule in its own right. After a delay of almost a year a coalition was formed with FUNCINPEC. Hun Sen became Prime Minister and Prince Norodom Ranariddh President of the National Assembly.

2008 National Assembly Elections

The fourth National Assembly elections took place on 27 July 2008. The elections were generally regarded as credible. They were considered to have been freer than past elections and conducted in a more open and peaceful environment. Overall compliance with procedures and technical requirements was of a higher level than previously.

The 2008 elections were the first where government was determined by a simple majority. The CPP received 90 of the National Assembly's 123 seats, the SRP 26 seats, the Human Rights Party (HRP) 3 seats and the NRP and FUNCINPEC 2 seats each. Opposition parties received around 42 per cent of the vote.

A four-member Australian parliamentary delegation, together with volunteers from the Australian Embassy, observed the polls on election day. Australia contributed $570,000 in support of voter education and civic participation in the lead up to elections. Australia also worked with the UN encouraging those eligible to register and to encourage independent news reporting and broadcasting time for political party campaigns. Hun Sen was sworn in as Prime Minister in September 2008.

2013 National Assembly Elections – see above (Overview section)

System of Government

Cambodia is a constitutional monarchy. The King, Norodom Sihamoni (who succeeded his father King Norodom Sihanouk in October 2004), is the Head of State but does not exercise executive power over the Kingdom. The Prime Minister is appointed by the King from the representatives of the party holding the majority in the National Assembly. Cambodia has a bicameral parliament. The lower house - the National Assembly - is made up of 123 members elected every five years from 24 provinces and municipalities. The Senate, which also has a five year term, is made up of 61 members of whom two are appointed by the King, two are appointed by the National Assembly, and the remainder are elected by commune councilors through non-universal elections. The Council of Ministers (Cabinet) is formed by members of the Royal Government.

Members of the Commune (local) Councils are elected by universal vote every five years (the last Commune Council elections took place in June 2012). As well as voting for senators, Council members elect village chiefs for the villages they administer. Municipal/district councilors are elected by non-universal vote by sitting commune councilors for five year terms.

Judicial system

Cambodia has a three tier judicial system: trial court, appeals court and supreme court. Each province and municipality has its own courts. Judges and magistrates are appointed, promoted and dismissed by the Supreme Council of the Magistracy, which is chaired by the King. The Supreme Council of the Magistracy consists of the Minister of Justice, the President of the Supreme Court, the Prosecutor General of the Supreme Court, the President of the Appeals Court, the Appeals Court Prosecutor and three elected judges, each with a five year mandate.

Authority to interpret Cambodia's Constitution and laws is granted to the Constitutional Council which comprises nine members with a nine year mandate. Three members of the Council are appointed by the King, three by the National Assembly and another three by the Supreme Council of the Magistracy.

Last Updated: 24 January 2014