Australia’s Spy Agency Warns of Foreign Interference in Ethnic Communities

August 14, 2020 Updated: August 25, 2020

Australia’s spy agency has warned that ethnic communities face “threats of harm” from foreign governments seeking to “monitor, direct, and influence” the activities of diaspora groups.

The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) made the submission to a parliamentary inquiry examining issues affecting Australia’s vast, multicultural communities.

“Some foreign governments seek to interfere in diaspora communities to control or quash opposition or dissent deemed to be a threat to their government,” the ASIO submission (pdf) stated.

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Pedestrians in the Chinatown district on March 4, 2020 in Sydney, Australia. (Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images)

“ASIO is aware of numerous individuals from a range of diaspora communities who reported being subject to threats against themselves and family members due to their voicing of opinions on political and ideological issues which a foreign country deemed to be a threat to their government.”

ASIO said the threats came either directly from foreign government representatives or other members of the diaspora community—acting on the direction of the government.

“These activities against diaspora communities have related to issues including overseas electoral events, pro-democracy movements, and human rights, as well as issues associated with protecting the image of the foreign country,” ASIO wrote.

The submission avoided directly mentioning Beijing.

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Melbourne’s Chinatown on August 13, 2020. (William West/AFP via Getty Images)

In recent years, ASIO has been increasingly vocal on the issue, with the former head of the agency, Duncan Lewis, warning in 2018 that the level of foreign interference in the country was “unprecedented.”

In 2019, Lewis again warned that Australia faced “an existential threat” from foreign interference.

Following his retirement, the former spy chief admitted that Beijing was the issue that “overwhelmingly” kept ASIO preoccupied.

ASIO Director-General Duncan Lewis Lowy Institute Sydney
Australian Security Intelligence Organisation Director-General Duncan Lewis speaks at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, Australia, on Sept. 4, 2019. (Courtesy of the Lowy Institute/Facebook)

For example, the Uyghur Association of Victoria wrote (pdf) to the inquiry saying family members in China were being harassed and forced to contact Australian-based relatives telling them not to engage in activities “unfavourable” to the Chinese regime.

Sometimes family members in China would be compelled to call their relatives in the presence of Chinese police.

The Chinese Communist Party was also accused of preventing Australian citizens (of Uyghur ethnicity) from returning to Australia after travelling to China.

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Alim Osman, president of Uyghur association of Victoria, speaks at the Hong Kong rally on July 28, 2019 in Melbourne, Australia. (The Epoch Times)

“It is apparent to us that some Uyghur and Chinese folk have been offered inducements to disseminate Chinese government propaganda in the Uyghur community and keep tabs on the activities of Uyghur people in Australia,” the submission stated.

The Khmer Community of New South Wales complained (pdf) of foreign interference locally by the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) saying the regime has established front organisations (akin to Beijing’s United Front Work Department) in Australia to “recruit, infiltrate or take control” of the local community.

The Overseas Youth Working Group seeks to build membership from Cambodian students studying around the world to shore up support for the regime back home.

In 2016, the group ran an Australia-wide recruitment campaign headlined by Hun Manet, the son of Cambodian leader Hun Sen.

In 2018, Hun Sen threatened to pursue and “beat” protestors who burned effigies of him at the ASEAN summit in Sydney.

Epoch Times Photo
Australia’s former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (R) waves with ASEAN leaders (L to 2nd R) Laos’ Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith, Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo, Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen, Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah and Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-O-Cha at the ASEAN-Australia Special Summit in Sydney on March 17, 2018.
(Saeed Khan/AFP via Getty Images)

The submission from the community claimed the CPP’s activities in Australia have caused “anger, fear, insecurity, mistrust, and division among the Cambodian diaspora.”

“For the survivors of Pol Pot’s killing fields, these events … recall the fear and trauma of the Khmer Rouge years,” it continued.

Foreign interference in Australia has been a hot topic in recent years following revelations that authoritarian regimes, namely the China’s Communist Party, have been actively working to influence the country’s domestic affairs.