NGOs and unions are calling on the European Union to help resolve Cambodia’s political crisis ahead of a general election this month, as a delegation from the bloc wraps up a fact-finding mission to assess the country’s compliance with its human rights obligations as dictated by a tariff-free export scheme.
Nearly a dozen commissioners from the EU were set to meet with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Wednesday, according to local media reports, in the delegation’s last stop on its seven-day mission to determine whether to suspend Cambodia from its Everything But Arms (EBA) scheme, under which all exports to the bloc are tariff-free, with the exception of weapons.
Since the mission began on July 4, delegates have met with several local rights groups and trade unions, as well as Te Chanmono—the wife of the now-dissolved main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) President Kem Sokha, who has been held in prison since his arrest in September on charges of treason—to discuss Cambodia’s rights record and the state of democracy in the country.
Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP in November over allegations it was involved in a plot to topple the government, stripping the party’s officials of their posts and banning many lawmakers from politics for five years. The CNRP’s seats in parliament were distributed to government-friendly parties that had been rejected by voters.
The dissolution of the CNRP and the arrest of Kem Sokha, as well as a months-long crackdown on NGOs and the independent media, are measures widely seen as part of a bid by Prime Minister Hun Sen to ensure that his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) stays in power in Cambodia following the July 29 general election. Hun Sen marks 33 years in office this year.
Soeung Sen Karona, spokesman for local rights group Adhoc, told RFA’s Khmer Service Wednesday that he and other NGO representatives met with EU delegates on July 6 and expressed their concerns over ongoing rights violations in Cambodia.
He said the mission had “accepted our concerns” and pledged to include them in its findings to the European Commission for consideration on whether the EU should reconsider preferential trade treatment for Cambodia.
“We also requested that the EU intervene and pressure the Cambodian government to respond to its recommendation to restore democracy in the country, or lose economic benefits from EBA scheme,” he said.
Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union President Ath Thon told RFA that EU delegates met with representatives of his union and other independent unions on July 9 and asked them about the status of freedom of expression and assembly in Cambodia, as well as restrictions on labor rights.
“[We told them that] we want more freedom for unions and workers,” Ath Thon said, adding that he and other union representatives had urged the EU to pressure Cambodia’s government on their behalf.
“We also want better working conditions and benefits for workers.”
Ath Thon said that the union representatives did not have time to speak with the delegates about their assessment of whether the EU should suspend the EBA scheme.
A day later, delegates met with Te Chanmono, senior CNRP official Muth Chantha confirmed in a post on his Facebook page, saying that members of the fact-finding mission had “expressed concerns over the continued detention of Kem Sokha and demanded that he be released immediately.”
EU ambassador to Cambodia George Edgar confirmed to RFA that the delegation met with a wide variety of stakeholders during its visit.
“The mission has met a range of interlocutors from government, civil society, labour unions, the private sector and the international community,” he wrote in an email.
“The purpose has been to learn more about the situation in Cambodia in terms of human rights and labour rights, in the context of the EU's enhanced engagement with Cambodia under the Everything But Arms arrangement. The information gathered by the mission will feed into the decision making process in the European Commission and the European External Action Service.”
In a letter to European Commission Vice President Federica Mogherini—who is also the bloc’s top foreign affairs official—European Commissioner for Trade Anna Cecilia Malmström, and European Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs, Skills and Labour Mobility Marianne Leonie Petrus Thyssen ahead of the delegation’s visit, 18 EU parliamentarians called for its findings to be made public.
The parliamentarians also stressed the importance of publically reporting the mission’s findings to Cambodia’s citizens and to the EU Parliament, including with regards to the follow-up to a Council of Conclusions meeting in February, which called for targeted measures in case there were no improvements of the country’s rights situation.
On Wednesday, five pro-government union organizations issued a joint statement urging the EU not to suspend the EBA, saying the scheme provides crucial benefits to Cambodia.
“The EBA has created employment in Cambodia and elevated people out of poverty,” the statement said.
Cambodia’s Council of Minsters spokesman Phay Siphan refused to comment on the fact-finding mission, but had welcomed the EU’s fact-finding mission ahead of the visit, saying it would provide the government a chance to explain why it had moved to dissolve the CNRP.
He had also suggested that the EU would not suspend the EBA if tis delegation “evaluates Cambodia based on facts and not on politics.”
In a leaked letter to Hun Sen late last year, Commerce Minister Pan Sorasak warned that Cambodia would face U.S. $676 million in tariffs based on an estimated U.S. $6.2 billion in revenue from exports to the EU in 2016, should the country lose preferential trade treatment.
According to the European Commission, the EU ranked as the second biggest trade partner of Cambodia in 2017, importing goods worth 5 billion euros (U.S. $5.8 billion) from the country. Key EU imports from Cambodia include textiles, footwear and agricultural products.
The U.S. has already withdrawn donor support for Cambodia’s elections, citing government actions seen as limiting democracy in the country.
But Japan, among the largest funders of Cambodia’s 2018 elections, has maintained that it has no intention of pulling its electoral aid ahead of the July vote and China has also pledged its support.
Also on Wednesday, Cambodians reacted to a report a day earlier by U.S. cybersecurity firm FireEye that an espionage group known as TEMP.Periscope, which is believed linked to China’s government, had targeted the computers of Cambodia’s top electoral body, various government agencies, opposition members, and NGOs in a hacking operation ahead of the general election.
The report found that the ministries of foreign affairs, economics and finance, and interior were among those compromised in the attack, and marked the first time a Chinese entity had been accused of targeting Cambodia’s government.
FireEye said that China may have been rattled by a May election upset in Malaysia that saw the opposition assume power after voters rejected a ruling party that had governed the country since its independence, and could be seeking to influence the elections of friendly nations.
China’s Foreign Ministry has rejected the claims.
On Wednesday, Hang Puthea, spokesman for Cambodia’s National Election Committee (NEC), confirmed that the electoral body’s website and his personal Facebook account had been hacked, but had since been recovered.
He said he “doubted” that the hackers had attacked the NEC to “obtain secret information” pertaining to the upcoming election.
Phay Siphan also addressed the report Wednesday, saying that he was unaware of any state institution websites having been hacked in the TEMP.Periscope campaign, but condemned any would-be cyberattacks.
“Cambodia’s stance is that we condemn any hacking or spying, because it affects our national security and sovereignty,” he said.
NGOs also expressed concern over the report on Wednesday, noting that rights group Licadho had been targeted in the campaign, and wondering if they could be next.
FireEye was first alerted to the alleged hacking attack in June by Kem Sokha’s U.S.-based daughter, Kem Monovithya, after she repeatedly received suspicious emails purportedly sent by an investigator from a Cambodian rights group.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.