A European Union delegation arrived in Cambodia as NGOs in the Southeast Asian country called on the government to uphold the constitution as a way to avoid losing preferential trade terms the EU has threatened to withdraw in response to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s crackdown on opponents.
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.
EU Cambodia mission spokesman George Edgar told RFA’s Khmer Service that the EU delegates will meet senior Cambodian government representatives on Wednesday.
“This is not a fact-finding mission like the one that took place last July. It is a short visit that is part of the process of engagement between the EU and the Cambodian authorities in the context of EBA,” he said by e-mail.
The visit prompted a group of 66 local and international NGOs, trade unions, and activists to issue a statement calling on the government to address EU concerns.
The coalition of groups “are deeply concerned about the launch of the European Union (EU) Commission’s procedure to temporarily suspend Cambodia’s access to its Everything But Arms (EBA) trade agreement,” they said in a statement.
“As defenders of fundamental rights and labor rights, we fully understand the European Union’ position and decision. However, we are deeply worried that the EBA suspension will directly and negatively impact Cambodian people’s welfare and livelihood,” said the statement.
Cambodia could avoid loss of trade preferences by upholding the country’s constitution, particularly the articles that require the government to recognize and respect human rights, and freedoms of association, expression and assembly, said the statement.
“We believe that this situation can be avoided if the RGC takes appropriate steps to fulfil its obligations towards its citizens and effectively implement the Cambodian Constitution,” it said, using the initials for the Royal Government of Cambodia.
In response to NGOs’ statement, government spokesman Phay Siphan told RFA that Hun Sen’s regime won’t bow its head in exchange for benefits.
“The government already said that we won’t kneel down for EBA in exchange for our integrity or destroying the Supreme Court’s verdict [to ban 118 CNRP officials from politics],” said Phay Siphan
“NGOs should praise Cambodia’s situation,” he said without elaboration.
Soeung Sen Karuna, a spokesman for Adhoc, a human rights group which signed the joint NGO statement, said Phay Siphan’s remarks underscored how the government always disregards NGOs’ recommendations.
“We want all stakeholders to pay attention to people to avoid any negative consequences resulting from losing EBA. We know for sure that it would be a devastating loss for the nation,” he said.
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.
The renewed focus on the imperiled EU trade policy came days after Phnom Penh Municipal Court made public its decision to issue arrest warrants for Sam Rainsy, who has said he plans to return to Cambodia in 2019, and seven other top CNRP officials living abroad on charges of “treason and incitement to commit felonies.”
Also named in the warrant, dated March 12, are CNRP vice presidents Mu Sochua and Eng Chhay Eang, and CNRP lawmakers Ou Chanrith, Tok Vanchan, Long Ry, Ho Vann, and Men Sothavrin.
The eight were in attendance at the first “CNRP Permanent Committee” meeting in Lowell, Massachusetts on Jan. 20, when Sam Rainsy was official appointed acting party president while Kem Sokha remained in pre-trial detention facing charges of treason.
The ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), issued a statement Tuesday strongly condemn the arrest warrants filed against Mu Sochua, who is an APHR board member, and the seven others.
“The criminal charges that led to the warrants are entirely politically motivated and baseless, and mark yet another attempt by the Cambodian government to harass opposition politicians,” the group said in a statement.
Ministry of Justice spokesman Chin Malin dismissed the APHR criticism as “a political statement.”
“The arrest warrants were issued according to the laws in a democratic country based on investigations,” the minister said.
Kang Savang, a spokesman for Cambodian electoral watchdog the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL), told RFA March 19 that the arrest warrants make the situation with the EU worse.
“If I were the government, I would have responded to the EU’s concerns,” he said.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Paul Eckert.