Cambodia will face severe economic hardship if the European Union proceeds with threatened plans to suspend beneficial trade preferences, Cambodian Interior Minister Sar Kheng said Monday, calling the expected move a matter of “regret.”
Speaking at a ceremony for retired civil service workers, police officers, and veterans with disabilities in the provincial town of Battambang, Sar Kheng rejected European demands for greater political freedom in the Southeast Asian country.
Such demands infringe on Cambodia’s sovereignty and independence, he said.
“We can ultimately rely on only one thing, and that is making our own efforts,” Sar Kheng said. “As long as we depend on others, we will not be working at our full strength.”
“Whether the EU suspends these [trade preferences] or not is up to them. But we would welcome it if they don’t. We would be happy and grateful to them,” he said.
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, as well as a wider crackdown on media and civil society.
Kem Sokha’s arrest, and a decision by the Supreme Court to dissolve the CNRP two months later, paved the way for Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in parliament in a July 2018 general election that was widely seen as unfree and unfair.
Sar Kheng was one of a group of three top Cambodian officials, including Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn and Trade Minister Pan Sorasak, who met on March 19-20 to open a dialogue with an EU delegation led by European Action Service (EEAS) deputy managing director of Asia & The Pacific Paola Pampaloni.
'Done taking orders'
Speaking on March 29 at a three-hour forum in the capital Phnom Penh, Hun Sen told civil servants, members of the private sector, and diplomats including the EU Ambassador to Cambodia, George Edgar, that Cambodia is “fed up” with demands from foreigners about how to run the country.
“Cambodia is done taking orders—foreigners tell us to do things and if we decline, they threaten to impose taxes,” he said.
The Cambodian government and the EU should now hold further talks to find common ground and avoid losses to the country’s garment industry, an independent trade union leader said on Monday.
Factory workers in Cambodia will be the first to suffer if trade preferences are suspended, Ath Thun—president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union (CCAWDU)—told RFA’s Khmer Service.
“We are really concerned because the EBA [trade provisions] are crucial,” he said.
“They create jobs and opportunities, generate income for workers, and reduce poverty for our residents. If these are suspended, this will surely affect investment mechanisms to some extent.”
Call for ouster
Writing in a Facebook post on April 3, exiled acting opposition chief Sam Rainsy called on the country’s people to oust Hun Sen, who has now ruled Cambodia for more than three decades.
The Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which is banned in Cambodia but has regrouped and is active outside the country, would support Sar Kheng, who also serves as Cambodia’s deputy prime minister, if he were to stage a coup, Sam Rainsy said.
Different visions for the country’s future now divide the prime minister and his deputy, Sam Rainsy said.
“We say that if [Sar Kheng’s followers] dare to topple Hun Sen, we will support them. They will not be isolated,” he said.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Richard Finney.