The European Union announced yesterday that it is suspending all support for Cambodia’s National Election Committee, calling credible elections impossible in light of the government’s dissolution of the ruling party’s only legitimate competitor.
In a letter to the chairman of the NEC, Sik Bun Hok, EU Ambassador George Edgar cites the government’s recent crackdown on the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party – dissolved by the Supreme Court last month – as the reason for the suspension.
Since the commune elections, he writes, “a series of actions has been taken by the authorities against the main opposition party, which won 44.5% of the vote in the 2013 legislative election and 43.8% in the 2017 local elections”.
“The dissolution of the CNRP also means that it will not be able to run in the National Assembly elections in 2018. An electoral process from which the main opposition party has been arbitrarily excluded cannot be seen as legitimate,” the letter reads. “Under these circumstances, the European Union does not believe there is a possibility of a credible electoral process.”
The EU pledged €10 million (more than $11 million) to support the NEC for the 2017 local and 2018 national elections. Edgar in an email yesterday said that “roughly $1 million” had yet to be spent.
With this move, the EU becomes the second international partner to suspend its assistance for the NEC following the United States’ end of support last month.
Som Sorida, NEC deputy secretary-general, criticised the EU’s decision to link politics to NEC funding, though he insisted the election body was “ready” to organise the next elections as it had already budgeted $2 million for Senate elections and $52 million for national elections.
He added that Japan, China, South Korea and Russia would continue supporting it.
But Paul Chambers, a lecturer at the College of Asean Community Studies at Thailand’s Naresuan University, said the EU’s decision would have wide-ranging consequences.
“This will lead to the incremental termination of backing from Western countries and organizations for the 2018 elections,” he said in an email, arguing that this would push Cambodia further into economic dependency on China.
Political analyst Meas Nee agreed, saying that the suspension was proof the EU would not recognise next year’s election results. “An election which is not officially recognised by the international community will cause our country to become a country that doesn’t meet the international requirements,” he said.
Preap Kol, from Transparency International, suspected other measures, including economic sanctions, may follow. “I fear that this might not be the only measure to be taken by the EU if things will not be improved over the coming months ahead of the July 2018 national elections,” he said.
Indeed, the move comes after months of EU parliamentarians repeatedly asking the European Commission to take a range of measures against Cambodia, including utilising “trade and economic tools”.
Johannes Cornelis van Baalen, for example, asked the commission at the beginning of last month whether it was “prepared to consider taking measures against Cambodia under Article 15 of the [Generalised Scheme of Preferences] Regulation if the oppression is not ended immediately”.
Under this article, Cambodia’s preferable trade treatment can be temporarily withdrawn for all or certain products.
This seems to be in line with a suggested draft for a new European Parliament resolution on the situation in Cambodia that will be voted on on Thursday. In a draft of the resolution obtained yesterday, the political Group of the Greens asks the EU “to consider the temporary withdrawal of trade preferences given under the [Everything But Arms] scheme”.
Kem Monovithya, a public affairs officer of the now-dissolved CNRP, said in a message that “further actions”, such as the suspension of the EBA, will likely be taken if the “government doesn’t reverse course soon”.
The draft resolution also calls on the EU to “prepare a list of individuals responsible for the dissolution of the opposition and other serious human rights violations in Cambodia” to potentially impose visa restrictions and freeze assets. The US has already taken a similar measure, announcing visa restrictions on officials linked to “undermining democracy”.
But Council of Ministers spokesperson Phay Siphan said the government had “prepared for the worst-case scenario”.
“We are ready to take care of our own people,” he said, declining to provide details on the government’s plan so as not to “manipulate” the situation.
Meanwhile, Uch Borith, Foreign Affairs Ministry secretary of state, met with US Deputy Assistant Secretary for Southeast Asia Patrick Murphy yesterday, stressing after the meeting the principle of noninterference and reiterating that the government had not violated any laws.
He also asked that a different set of US visa sanctions – imposed on high-ranking foreign affairs officials after the government refused to accept Cambodian felons deported from the US – be lifted in order for Cambodia to restart search operations for missing US soldiers’ remains in Cambodia.
“We just asked for a discussion over separation of families [of potential deportees], but the visa sanction was imposed nonetheless,” he said. “We will resume [the search operation] again when the visa sanction is lifted.”