A European Union delegation met with top officials in Cambodia Wednesday to discuss whether the Southeast Asian nation should continue to enjoy preferential trade terms with the bloc amid rollbacks on democracy, even as Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered “attacks” on the country’s opposition.
The EU decided in February to launch 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.
The EU trade measure, and a similar one proposed by the U.S. Congress, was motivated by 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 two months later, along with a wider crackdown on media and civil society.
On Wednesday, EU Cambodia mission spokesman George Edgar confirmed to RFA’s Khmer Service that the visiting delegation had met with deputy prime ministers Sar Kheng and Prak Sokhonn, who are also Cambodia’s interior and foreign ministers, as well as Minister of Commerce Pan Sorasak.
“They discussed EBA and other issues,” he said in an email, adding that he was unable to provide additional details of the meetings.
Following a meeting between Sar Kheng and European External Action Service (EEAS) deputy managing director of Asia & the Pacific Paola Pampaloni, Interior Ministry spokesman Phat Sophanith told reporters that the two had discussed how to boost mutually beneficial cooperation between Cambodia and the EU.
But Phat Sophanith also suggested that the meeting had focused on resolving the EBA issue, adding that Sar Kheng told Paola Pampaloni that the government is “working to resolve political, human rights and land issues.”
He said Sar Kheng stressed that Cambodia is continuing to improve its fledgling democracy and “won’t abandon it.”
Also on Wednesday, Foreign Affairs spokesman Ket Sophann told reporters following a meeting between Prak Sokhonn and the EU delegation that the EU had reiterated a call for the government to release Kem Sokha from house arrest, but said the request was similar to one made last year.
“His Excellency [told the delegation] that in Cambodia, the government can’t discuss or request a release—only the Ministry of Justice can review the case, because it concerns a court process,” he said.
On Tuesday, the arrival of the EU delegation had prompted a group of 66 local and international NGOs, trade unions, and activists to issue a statement calling on the government to address the Bloc’s concerns, saying they are “deeply worried that the EBA suspension will directly and negatively impact Cambodian people’s welfare and livelihood.”
But government spokesman Phay Siphan responded to the statement by telling RFA that Hun Sen’s regime “won’t kneel down for EBA in exchange for our integrity or destroying the Supreme Court’s verdict,” referring to its November 2017 decision to dissolve the CNRP, 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.
The Supreme Court also slapped a five-year ban on the political activities of 118 CNRP senior officials for the party’s role in an alleged plot to topple the government.
In December last year, Hun Sen’s Constitutional Council unanimously approved an amendment to the draft law on political parties, paving the way for the reinstatement of rights to the 118 CNRP officials banned from politics by the Supreme Court’s decision.
The legislation does not provide for the reestablishment of the CNRP, and Hun Sen has said the political rights of the officials will only be reinstated on an individual basis if they had “shown respect for the Supreme Court’s ruling,” and provided they each make an individual request.
So far, nine of the 118 have accepted Hun Sen’s offer, which is widely seen as part of a bid to ease international pressure on his government in response to a crackdown on the opposition, NGOs and the independent media. Critics have called it a “trap” aimed at fracturing the CNRP, and CNRP activists say those who apply for reinstatement are “opportunists” who are betraying the interests of the public.
Threat of arrests
The prime minister on Wednesday dismissed concerns over the potential loss of benefits under the EBA and ratcheted up warnings to the remaining banned senior CNRP officials to accept his terms, ordering authorities to arrest any who conduct political activities without having first been granted reinstatement of their rights.
“Why are you organizing forces—I am warning all of you throughout the country, please stop it,” said Hun Sen, suggesting that some CNRP members are involved in plots of terrorism in a speech addressing thousands of workers in Pursat.
“If you don’t ask for rehabilitation, you don’t have the right to gather with people—you don’t have any rights at all,” he added.
The prime minister called on authorities to “attack [CNRP officials conducting political activities] if you see one, and attack two if you see two.”
“I order you to do so,” he said.
Hun Sen also dismissed suggestions that he had “bought” the nine senior CNRP officials who requested reinstatement of their political rights, as some in the opposition party have suggested, and who have already been expelled from the party, according to senior leadership living in self-imposed exile.
Regarding the EU review of trade preferences, Hun Sen said the EBA scheme has no bearing on whether Cambodia’s economy will improve and that, regardless of government ministers meeting with the EU delegation, he will have the final say on charting the country’s course.
At the end of the EBA monitoring period, the EU—Cambodia’s largest trading partner—will take three months to produce a report based on its findings, and in February 2020, the European Commission 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.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.