Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen on Friday challenged the U.S. and EU to act on threats to freeze his overseas assets and those of other government officials seen as restricting democracy in the country, amid a crackdown on the opposition, NGOs, and the media ahead of general elections next year.
On Thursday, the European Parliament adopted a resolution urging Cambodia’s government to reverse a Supreme Court decision to dissolve the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and ban 118 of the party’s officials from politics for five years, as well as release CNRP President Kem Sokha from pre-trial detention, where he is being held on charges of plotting a rebellion.
Members of parliament also asked the European External Action Service and the European Union Commission to prepare a list of individuals responsible for the dissolution of the opposition and other rights violations in Cambodia, with a view to imposing visa restrictions and asset freezes on them.
The resolution followed a call earlier this week by the Committee on Foreign Affairs for the U.S. House of Representatives for a list of individuals in Cambodia who should be subject to sanctions and a pledge to review trade agreements with the country as part of a bid to pressure its government to end a months-long crackdown on democratic freedoms in the lead up to the July 2018 ballot.
Both the U.S. and EU have announced that they are withdrawing funding of the election next year, and last week Washington leveled visa restrictions on “individuals responsible for undermining Cambodian democracy” in response to the September arrest of Kem Sokha on charges of “attempting to topple the government” and the Supreme Court decision to dissolve the CNRP for its alleged role in the “conspiracy.”
The Supreme Court rejected a bid by the opposition to reverse its ruling Friday, saying its decision could not be appealed.
Hun Sen on Friday dismissed the U.S. and EU resolutions as mere recommendations that were unlikely to result in actual sanctions, during a speech in the capital Phnom Penh.
“A resolution passed by the U.S. Congress does not mean that the Trump Administration has to follow, just as a resolution passed by the European Parliament does not bind the European Commission to implement it,” he said.
“You [the opposition] need to familiarize yourself with that. Don’t give yourself false hope every day, week, and month like that. Wait and see, and you’ll find out that the world cannot just do whatever you wish.”
The prime minister went a step further and encouraged the U.S. and EU to freeze the assets of Cambodian officials from his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
“You don’t need to just threaten us, just do it now if you are brave enough … but don’t ever think that such sanctions would hurt us,” he said.
“How many CPP officials have their assets outside of Cambodia? They wouldn’t be so damn stupid as to keep their assets overseas. I don’t have any assets to keep outside Cambodia. All my assets are in Cambodia, in the form of schools, temples, wells and irrigation canals.”
With regard to Washington’s announcement of visa restrictions, Hun Sen said he wasn’t planning on traveling to the U.S. anyway.
“The only the trip I made to the U.S. was … in 1992 to lobby the U.S. Congress to fund the UNTAC operation in Cambodia,” he said, referring to the United Nations’ body that governed his nation after the Paris Peace Accords ended civil war there a year earlier.
“Apart from that, I have never had any other reason that I would need to go to the U.S. or other countries again. I don’t even have enough time to travel across Cambodia, let alone the U.S. or other countries.”
However, Hun Sen added, he would consider allowing the U.S. to continue deporting Cambodian nationals convicted of felonies back to Cambodia and reinstate cooperation in the recovery of the remains of American servicemen missing in action since the Vietnam War—both of which he suspended earlier this year—if Washington agrees to lift visa sanctions on top Cambodian Foreign Ministry officials.
The U.S. had imposed those sanctions in August in response to Cambodia suspending the acceptance of deported Cambodian felons, and Hun Sen retaliated by ending cooperation on recovering American remains.
Hun Sen also called out Kem Sokha’s daughter, Kem Monovithya, and CNRP lawmakers living in self-imposed exile who are planning to lobby the U.N. Security Council over the deterioration of democracy in Cambodia as “slaves of a foreign country.”
“There are five permanent members in the U.N. Security Council—namely China, Russia, France, the U.S. and the U.K.—and if only one member vetoes, that would be it,” he said.
“May I also ask those who remain in the country not to be fooled by those who have fled the country. Don’t be too hopeful. You have to study the mechanism of the U.N. first.”
But while Hun Sen suggested sanctions would do little to affect him or his government, union leaders expressed concerns that the prime minister was playing a dangerous game with Cambodia’s U.S. $7 billion garment industry, which enjoys the benefits of preferential trade status with the U.S. and EU.
“We don’t agree with the prime minister that sanctions wouldn’t hurt us,” Ath Thon, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers' Democratic Union, told RFA.
“We don’t even know what makes the government so sure that there would be ‘no impact’ on the garment sector, should the EU and U.S. impose sanctions. Cambodian laborers are not skilled workers. If they lose their jobs, they won’t find other ones easily.”
Ath Thon noted that Cambodia relies heavily on the garment industry and said that if sanctions are implemented, more than 70 percent of those employed in the sector—or around 600,000 workers—would be “impacted immediately.” The EU alone accounts for around 40 percent of Cambodia’s exports.
“We are gravely concerned,” he said. “Workers will be financially frustrated and will start to migrate to other countries for work.”
“I think the government must make efforts to reverse the current situation in order to avoid this crisis.”
Cambodia is home to some 740,000 garment and footwear workers, who produce goods for global brands such as Marks & Spencer, H&M, and Adidas. They make up a significant portion of the country’s 8.3 million registered voters, and Hun Sen has been visiting factories regularly in recent weeks to gain their support in the lead up to the July ballot.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.