Prime Minister Hun Sen is politicizing a dispute over Cambodia’s shared border with Vietnam to divert public attention from the European Union’s reinstatement of tariffs on key exports that threatens to implode the country’s already weak economy, an opposition official charged Tuesday.
The withdrawal of duty-free, quota-free access to the EU’s market under the “Everything But Arms” (EBA) scheme for some 20 percent of Cambodia’s exports—a decision that was announced in February—went into effect on Aug. 12.
The EU’s move came in response to the Hun Sen government’s failure to reverse rollbacks on democracy and other freedoms required under the trade arrangement. Affected exports include goods from Cambodia’s vital garment and footwear industries.
Rather than acquiesce to EU demands, Hun Sen has doubled down and used allegations that his government allowed Vietnam to encroach on Cambodian territory as a pretext to arrest outspoken critics, Eng Chhay Eang, deputy president of the banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), told RFA’s Khmer Service.
He pointed to the arrest this month of union leader Rong Chhun for claiming the government has allowed Vietnam to encroach on farmland along their shared border. Since then, supporters have held near-daily protests demanding his release.
And while Hun Sen had said that EU demands to maintain the EBA were unreasonable and an interference in Cambodia’s internal affairs, the prime minister has largely kept silent about the withdrawal because he fears reinstatement of tariffs on the country’s remaining 80 percent of exports, Eng Chhay Eang said.
“In fact, Hun Sen is really concerned, internally,” he said.
“We know that Cambodia’s economy nowadays is already facing serious issues—not to mention this economic sanction.”
The CNRP last week condemned Hun Sen’s government for failing to implement reforms required by the EU to avoid trade sanctions and called on the bloc to sanction Hun Sen and other officials deemed responsible for rights violations in Cambodia through visa restrictions and the freezing of their assets, saying that the tariffs would largely only impact the country’s workers.
The CNRP also urged the government to reinstate its party—one of the conditions called for by the EU—and initiate a process of national reconciliation through inclusive dialogue. The CNRP was dissolved in November 2017 for its role in an alleged plot to topple the government, paving the way for Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election.
The 20 percent EBA withdrawal is expected to have a significant impact on the economy in Cambodia, which exported U.S. $6.4 billion in goods, mostly from its garment sector, to the EU in 2018—accounting for 45 percent of Cambodia’s total exports that year.
The EBA has been crucial for Cambodia’s U.S. $10 billion apparel industry, which employs 900,000 workers, but has seen mass layoffs and factory suspensions amid a slow in demand during the coronavirus pandemic.
Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions (CCU), was officially charged with “incitement to commit a felony or cause social unrest” under Article 495 of Cambodia’s Penal Code and jailed at Prey Sar Prison in Phnom Penh on Aug 1.
Prior to his arrest, Rong Chhun had criticized the government’s response to the coronavirus and, last month, wrote to Hun Sen calling on him to proactively address the issues that the EU has said prompted it to end Cambodia’s trade privileges.
Grip on power
Speaking to RFA on Tuesday, government spokesperson Phay Siphan dismissed claims that Hun Sen is using the border issue to downplay EU trade sanctions and said the reason the prime minister hasn’t commented on the EBA withdrawal is because he had already made his view clear.
“Such analysis doesn’t reflect the actual situation,” he said of recent arrests over the border dispute.
“As for the EBA issue, we have already spoken on it since February. It serves no interest to repeatedly discuss this issue. Our position remains the same.”
According to Phay Siphan, Cambodia’s government plans to hold further discussions with the EU about the remaining 80 percent of exports covered by the EBA, but he declined to comment on whether talks would include the 20 percent that had been withdrawn.
But Kean Punlorn, secretary-general of the Federation of Cambodian Intellectuals and Students, said there is little hope for the government to maintain remaining trade preferences under the EBA without giving up something in return.
He said that failure to meet EU demands shows that the government is only concerned about its grip on power, rather than the interests of the workers, and agreed with Eng Chhay Eang that the border issue is a diversion.
“The 20 percent withdrawal is only the first step taken by the EU and there will be further or subsequent steps when the government fails to restore democracy and respect human rights,” he said.
“Once more people lose their jobs, there will be protests and strikes within the country. So, the reason that [Hun Sen] has failed to raise and respond to this issue is in order to divert the entire population’s attention.”
The tactic appears to be working in part, as unresolved border issues between Cambodia and Vietnam, former French colonies from the 1860s to 1954, have regularly inflamed nationalist sentiment. The disputed border has sparked incidents in the past, with the construction by Vietnam of military posts in contested areas quickly challenged by Cambodian authorities in Phnom Penh.
A joint communique signed by Cambodia and Vietnam in 1995 stipulates that neither side can make any changes to border markers or allow cross-border cultivation or settlement pending the resolution of outstanding border issues.
The issue again came to the forefront after Rong Chhun’s July 20 visit to Trapeang Phlong commune, in Tbong Khmum province’s Ponhea Kraek district, where Cambodians claimed recently placed border posts had caused them to lose land to neighboring Vietnam.
The following day, he issued a statement on behalf of the Cambodia Watchdog Council (CWC) in which he cited irregularities with the placement of border posts 114 to 119 that resulted in the loss of “hundreds of hectares” (one hectare = 2.5 acres) of ancestral land belonging to area farmers.
The CWC says that farmers are losing land because Cambodia is demarcating the border based on a 1985 treaty from Vietnam’s 1979-89 occupation of the country following its ouster of the Khmer Rouge regime. It was during the occupation that Hun Sen began his 35-year rule over Cambodia.
Cambodia’s official Cambodia Border Committee on July 31 rejected Rong Chhun’s claims that farmers had lost land, saying the CWC had disseminated “fake news” based on “groundless accusations.” He was arrested for “incitement” the same day.
Since then, two of Rong Chhun’s supporters from the civil society group Khmer Thavarak have been charged with crimes in connection to a protest calling for him to be freed, while Suong Sophorn, the president of the little-known opposition Khmer Win Party (KWP), was arrested and charged with “incitement” after visiting the border and making similar accusations.
Hun Sen on Aug. 16 warned that anyone who speaks out about the Vietnamese border will now face arrest, but the threat of an increased crackdown has only increased public frustration and questions over the government’s handling of the situation, sources told RFA.
Law student Heoun Sreynich said Hun Sen’s warning was acting in violation of Cambodia’s constitution by prohibiting people from exercising their rights.
“The constitution stipulates that people have ‘rights and duty,’ which means they have the right to take part in protecting state sovereignty,” she said.
Phnom Penh resident Reoun Veasan, meanwhile, suggested Hun Sen “is trying to hide his fault of secretly signing a border treaty with Vietnam that resulted in Cambodia losing land.”
Soth Ban, a political science graduate, said that as Cambodia’s leader it is Hun Sen’s job to explain the border situation if the public does not understand it.
“His speech was a bit brutal and insolent—as a country leader, he should show decency because he is supposed to be a role model for the people,” he said.
“He has power so he can say whatever he wants, but we youth still love the nation and will continue to monitor the development of the border issue.”
CWC president Men Nath called Hun Sen’s threat “a big mistake” and said that people with opposing viewpoints must be allowed to express them.
“Activists and those who monitor the border only demand one thing, which is to resolve the border issue with transparency,” he said. “Put it on the table, don’t do it secretly.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo and Sok Ry Sum. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.