Following the 12th annual EU-Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit that took place in Brussels on October 18-19, the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini announced a temporary freeze its “Everything But Arms” (EBA) trade preferences with Cambodia until the Southeast Asian nation’s political situation and human records improve.
“With Cambodia, we have made a decision to start the process of temporarily withdrawing the EBA’s trade preferences as there is a lot of concern in the EU about the dissolution in November of last year of the (country’s) main opposition party and internal terms that narrow the democratic space for political opposition and civil society,” Mogherini said. “We discussed the issue with Prime Minister Hun Sen, and I cannot say that we found a solution to these problems.”
In June, Human Rights Watch published a report accusing the ruling Cambodian People’s Party and Hun Sen, a Cambodia’s long-time autocratic leader, of motivated prosecution, repressive laws and numerous human rights abuses.
In 2017, in the run-up of the parliamentary elections, the government arrested Kem Sokha, the leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, on charges of treason, that provoked widespread international condemnation
Hundreds of Cambodians responded to the European Union’s decision by holding a demonstration in front of the European Council, demanding that the EU and the international community put pressure on Hun Sen to release Kem Sokha, who was sent in prison last year on spurious treason charges.
Ratings agency Moody’s on October 22 said the withdrawal of a duty-free trading access by the European Union for Cambodia as a result of Phnom Penh’s human rights record would have a negative effect on European investments in the country as the EU is Cambodia’s biggest export market, Reuters reported.
The European Union had warned earlier in October that Cambodia risked losing its EBA initiative with the world’s largest trading bloc as part of a punitive response to the Cambodian government’s crackdown on democracy.
Cambodia’s manufacturing plants supply global brands such as Gap Inc, Swedish fashion brand H&M, as well as sportswear brands Nike, Puma, and Adidas. Its exports to the European Union were worth €5 billion in 2017, EU data showed.
A defiant Hun Sen accused the EU of waging psychological warfare against his government, saying, “I would like to tell all compatriots: did you lose jobs or income yet? Nothing has been lost but they issue this review as a psychological war attack.”
The autocratic Hun Sen added that the withdrawal of the EBA would not affect Cambodia’s economy.
Cambodia has had a dismal human rights record since the country gained independence following the dissolution of French Indochina in 1954. Wars in neighbouring Vietnam and the rise of its own Communist insurgency, the Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge of Pol Pot and its brutal dictatorship of genocidal “killing fields” and forced labour camps has deeply scarred the country of nearly 17 million people.
Corruption is deep-rooted in the country and contributes to Cambodia remaining as one of the world’s poorest nations, with most of the workforce still employed in subsistence farming.
The ceremonial head-of-state is King Sihamoni, a former ballet dancer, who became the leading monarch after his much-venerated and long-serving father King Sihanouk stepped down in 2004 due to poor health.
Real control over the government, however, is in the hands of Hun Sen, one of the world’s longest-serving prime ministers, who has been in power since 1985. A former Communist, Hun Sen was a member of the Khmer Rouge who was last reappointed by parliament to a new five-year term in September 2013 despite mass demonstrations and allegations of vote rigging.
Human rights activists and Cambodia’s political opposition critics have accused Hun Sen of using authoritarian tactics that include a mixture of electoral fraud, corruption and intimidation to maintain de-facto dictatorial rule.