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‘EBA loss will worsen West-China tug-of-war’

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Kong Korm, who is currently the honorary president of the Khmer Will Party. Heng Chivoan

‘EBA loss will worsen West-China tug-of-war’

Political veteran Kong Korm, who is currently the honorary president of the Khmer Will Party, weighed into the EBA debate on Monday, saying that withdrawing Cambodia’s trade preferences was tantamount to a Khmer saying, “getting angry with the oxen, but beating the oxen-driven cart”.

“The US’ GPS withdrawal and EU’s EBA withdrawal are an extreme politic like ‘getting angry with the oxen, but beating the oxen-driven cart’"

“It would not block Hun Sen’s power. But it would directly affect farmers, workers and citizens, pushing Cambodia deeper in the economic tug-of-war between the West and China,” he wrote on his Facebook page."

“Hun Sen and the people who went through isolation from the western world in the past now are capable and able to defeat the problems facing [them] and be successful like the other countries without EU’s preference scheme,” Korm said.

He criticised the US and its allies for their failures in Afghanistan and Syria, in which they expanded both military forces and sanctions.

During a phone call on Tuesday, he said the EU has not yet taken action against Myanmar for its serious human rights violations on the ground. Also, Cambodia’s neighbour, the Laos Republic – which he said is a communist state – still enjoyed the EBA scheme.

“If we look at the real situation with respect to democracy and human rights, they should look at the effort of the Cambodian government in improving these areas."

“After the dissolution of the CNRP, the gate was open which improved the political situation and restored democracy, while respect for human rights is better. They should not [withdraw the EBA] which would affect the livelihood of workers and farmers,” Korm stressed.

Last Tuesday, the EU started the official EBA withdrawal procedure for Cambodia. It said its concerns focused on three main areas – political rights and the shrinking of the space for democratic opposition and civil society; labour issues and curtailment of freedom of association and collective bargaining rights; and concerns over Economic Land Concessions, particularly in the sugar sector.

EU ambassador to Cambodia George Edgar said by email on Tuesday that these were covered by international human rights and labour rights Conventions, which Cambodia has signed and ratified, and which all countries benefiting from EBA preferences are expected to adhere to.

“Recent events, particularly in the latter part of 2017 and the first months of 2018, represented a serious step back by Cambodia in terms of its respect for the principles of the Conventions,” he said.

But political analyst Lao Mong Hay said withdrawing EBA meant that innocent workers, farmers, and exporters were punished, not those responsible.

“The stakes are too high now for both sides to back down, but the EU, and not our prime minister, has the final say,” he said.

But social analyst Meas Nee said the ball was with the Cambodian government in making a decision on where to go.

“First, Cambodia would go forward without caring about EBA. Our concern is that it affects bigger economic issues.

“Secondly, we are concerned that the political situation and international relations would worsen if the leader takes action like he suggested in leaked audio,” he said, referring to audio purportedly of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s voice calling to destroy the opposition (CNRP).

He said should EBA be suspended, not only workers and farmers would be affected, but government officials who had businesses linked to the EBA.

Kin Phea, the director-general of the International Relations Institute at the Royal Academy of Cambodia said the suspension or withdrawal of the EBA would not improve the situation on the ground but have further negative side-effects.

“It not only couldn’t improve democracy in Cambodia but would push human rights and democracy backwards. This is because we have seen that with the conditions attached to the EBA, the EU or the international community can talk and discuss with the Cambodian government to improve the points they claimed to be lacking."

“When the EU withdraws the EBA, it would not have any salty spittle [Khmer word referring to power or attraction to attention] to talk with the government on any condition,” he said.

He said the short-term effect would fall on workers with some factories closing their doors. But he said it would not have any effect on the government because the budget for civil servants and military did not come from the EBA.

Phea said the EU’s conditions for Cambodia to strengthen democracy, human rights and the rule of law contradicted its original principle to “to improve the livelihood of people in the least developed countries [LDCs]”.

“EBA comes with a political agenda rather than for the sake of people prosperity in the LDCs. The spirit to help people in LDCs would not come with democracy or socialism. If we consider democracy, socialism or communism, the Laos Republic would not receive it. But EBA had gone away from its original principle,” he said.

Kohe Hasan, a partner at international law firm Reed Smith, who has expertise in emerging markets including Cambodia, told The Post on Tuesday the Kingdom had in fact been one of the EBA success stories, particularly in respect of the garment sector.

Through the Better Factories Cambodia programme, the Kingdom, she said, had successfully adhered to and abided by the standards of the International Labour Organisation.

“It is really quite unfortunate that a withdrawal of the EBA incentives may put a large number of garment factories at risk.”

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