A fact-finding team from the European Commission and the European External Action Service begins week-long talks in Cambodia on Monday regarding the bloc’s “Everything But Arms” (EBA) agreement.
This is the second visit by high-ranking EU officials since February when it launched the formal process that could lead to the withdrawal of the EBA.
EU ambassador George Edgar confirmed on Sunday that the visit comes as part of the process of engagement between the EU and Cambodia regarding the EBA. It is similar to a mission that took place in July last year.
“The purpose is to meet government officials and other stakeholders, and to gather information on the current situation in relation to the areas of concern with respect to the UN and ILO [International Labour Organisation] Conventions that form part of the conditionality for access to EBA preferences,” Edgar said.
Meach Sovannara, a member of the Supreme Court-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) who met with Edgar last week, said on Sunday that he had been informed that the EU team would be visiting the Kingdom from June 3-7.
He said there were still more than two months to go for Cambodia and the EU to discuss the matter. He added that this mission should be the last of its kind.
However, another source with knowledge of the visit who asked not to be named said the fact-finding team consisting of nine members would visit Cambodia from June 3-10.
It would meet with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation and the Ministry of Interior. It was also due to meet with the Ministry of Land Management, the Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training and civil society groups.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Ket Sophann confirmed that the EU team would visit Cambodia this week.
In February, the EU began the 12-month official procedure for EBA withdrawal. It alleged “serious human rights violations” and a backsliding of democracy in Cambodia.
It called for CNRP president Kem Sokha’s treason charge to be dropped and the reinstatement of the party, among other demands. It said there would be intensive monitoring and engagement with Cambodian authorities during a six-month period.
In March, senior officials from the European External Action Service and the EU Directorate-General for Trade paid a two-day visit to Cambodia as part of the review and monitoring process included in the EBA withdrawal procedure.
The EU has said that out of total exports of $5.49 billion, $5.38 billion was eligible for EBA preferential duties last year. Government officials have said that EBA withdrawal would cost Cambodia almost $700 million each year.
Meanwhile, the Head of Unit in the Directorate General for Trade of the European Commission, Peter Berz, wrote to Mu Sochua, the deputy present of the former CNRP, last week on behalf of EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom in response to letters Sochua sent the EU in early March.
“We reiterate that the EU continues to urge the Cambodian government to take all necessary measures to establish a political environment in which all opposition parties, civil society and media can operate freely."
“Please rest assured that the EU remains committed to closely monitoring the situation in Cambodia,” Berz said.
In February, Sochua wrote a letter to the EU to inform of “increased threats against [CNRP co-founder Sam Rainsy], in particular, through a court order for his arrest”.
She said on Sunday that another letter to the EU regarded “verbal threats and orders from Hun Sen to destroy all CNRP”.
“Following that order, many CNRP members were arrested or had to flee,” Sochua claimed.
She said the EU fact-finding mission came at a time when more CNRP members had been arrested and questioned by the courts and police, with Hun Sen even talking about a war.
The prime minister told journalists at the 25th International Conference on The Future of Asia in Tokyo on Wednesday that he was “waiting for the war” called for by those who had appealed to the people and the army “to rise up” and arrest him.
“At this rate, Cambodia will lose the EBA special privilege,” Sochua said.
Meanwhile, political analyst Lao Mong Hay said: “Very little has been done to meet the EU’s demands. Actually, the Prime Minister has reiterated that Kem Sokha will not be released from his charge.”
Government spokesperson Phay Siphan could not be reached for comment on Sunday.