Cambodia on Tuesday slammed what it called an “unjust decision” by the European Union to launch proceedings that could see its preferential access to the bloc’s market suspended, saying the move amounted to interference in its internal affairs amid political tensions in the Southeast Asian nation.
The European Commission (EC), which coordinates trade policy for the EU, announced the decision on Monday, citing a deterioration in Cambodia’s labor and human rights record over the past 18 months, and kicking off a six-month monitoring period to determine whether Cambodian exports should continue to enjoy tax-free entry into the European market under the Everything But Arms (EBA) scheme.
At the end of the monitoring period, the EU—Cambodia’s largest trading partner—will take three months to produce a report based on its findings, and 12 months from Tuesday, the EC will conclude the procedure with a final decision on whether or not to withdraw trade preferences, as well as the scope and duration of the withdrawal.
Any withdrawal would come into effect after a total of 18 months.
Cambodia’s government lashed out at the EU in a statement Tuesday, calling the decision “unjust” and suggesting that the bloc “doesn't respect Cambodia’s sovereignty, because the EU’s demands amount to political interference.”
The period of “deterioration” referred to in the EC’s statement includes the September 2017 arrest of opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) President Kem Sokha for alleged acts of “treason” and the dissolution of his party by the Supreme Court two months later, which paved the way for the ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in parliament in a July 2018 general election.
On Tuesday, Cambodia’s government said the EU decision signaled its support for “a handful of politicians from a small party that is infamous for racism, discrimination and incitement” and expressed frustration that the bloc had overlooked its efforts to “rehabilitate 118 CNRP members,” referring to party members who had been banned from politics in the dissolution, but were offered reinstatement by Prime Minister Hun Sen if they join other parties and request “pardons.”
“Cambodia is willing to strengthen democracy, human rights, and labor rights,” the statement said, adding that the government is also “committed to protecting peace, stability and independence at all costs.”
“We will try to resolve the problems that will arise from this decision.”
Hun Sen followed the government statement with a message posted to his Facebook account criticizing the decision.
“Cambodia can’t rely solely on foreign aid or exchange its sovereignty and independence for anything,” the prime minister wrote.
“We want to see countries that are good friends of Cambodia be happy with our development, and not interfere in our internal affairs.”
The statements marked a departure from Cambodia’s earlier reactions to the threat of EU sanctions, including a statement by government spokesperson Phay Siphan on Monday, who said the country “had already prepared” for the decision and didn’t need to be coddled by the international community.
But average Cambodians—including workers, farmers and vendors—expressed concern Tuesday over the potential loss of tariff-free access to the EU, which accounted for nearly half of Cambodia’s exports last year and props up the Southeast Asian nation’s key garment industry.
Dy Samphos, a worker from the Songly Factory in Svay Rieng province, told RFA’s Khmer Service she will face severe financial difficulties if the EBA scheme is ended, saying she currently supports her children and elderly parents on modest wages.
“If the factory closes, I will have to live in another country [to earn enough money], and I will be far away from my children and parents,” she said.
A vendor in Svay Rieng named Ky Nady said she owns a grocery store and fears that if local factories close, workers will stop buying groceries.
“When they can’t afford to buy food and rice to eat, they won’t purchase anything from us,” she said.
And a farmer from Svay Rieng named Lougn Tha noted that while rice prices had dropped recently, he is still unable to find enough buyers for his crop.
If the EBA scheme is ended, he said, his living standards will suffer even more.
Both the Collective Union of Movement of Workers and the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia (GMAC) expressed concern over the EU decision on Tuesday.
Pav Sina, president of the Collective Union of Movement of Workers, told RFA that an end to the EBA would lead to the closure of factories and the loss of jobs for workers in Cambodia, and called on the government to resolve the problem it had caused.
“The issue emerged as a result of politics, so the government and politicians must resolve the problem and normalize the situation,” he said.
“They must restore the situation so that people will have work and see investment.”
In a statement, GMAC asked the EU to carefully reconsider its decision, noting that Cambodia exported clothes, shoes and travel goods worth around 3.76 billion Euros (U.S. $4.26 billion) in 2017.
Since 2001, it added, Cambodia’s garment sector has provided 700,000 jobs to workers from rural areas—80 percent of whom are women.
“The EBA contributes to poverty reduction” in Cambodia, the statement said, adding that an end to the scheme would lead to a loss in trade competition by the country’s factories and a tarnishing of their reputation.
“GMAC urges the EU to continue working with Cambodia to find a political resolution.”
US weighs in
The U.S. embassy in Cambodia also weighed in on the EU’s decision, saying Washington shared the bloc’s concerns “about serious violations of freedom of expression, internationally recognized labor rights, and freedom of association.”
It called on Cambodia to “restore a true, multi-party democracy” in the country, drop charges against Kem Sokha and other political prisoners, and allow trade unions, media groups and civil society “to operate without undue restrictions.”
“Cambodian leaders still have an opportunity to avoid the negative economic consequences of EBA withdrawal,” it said.
“We urge Cambodian leaders to put the well-being of the country before personal and political interests.”
Since Cambodia’s July 2018 election, which was widely seen as unfree and unfair, the U.S. has announced visa bans on individuals seen as limiting democracy in the country, as part of a series of measures aimed at pressuring Hun Sen to reverse course on a crackdown on the political opposition, NGOs and the independent media.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.