Prime Minister Hun Sen on Saturday told former Irish premier Enda Kenny, still a member of the EU nation’s parliament, that the 28-nation bloc should not make a “third mistake” regarding Cambodia by using the preferential Everything But Arms (EBA) agreement to “take 16 million Cambodians hostage”.
Hun Sen’s comments came as the EU considers withdrawing Cambodia’s EBA access after Western allegations of a reversing of democracy after the Supreme Court dissolved the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), and claims of human rights violations and the restriction of civil society freedoms.
The Cambodian government has rejected the claims, saying the Kingdom respects human rights and is firmly on the path of multiparty democracy.
Former Irish Taoiseach (prime minister) Kenny visited Hun Sen before attending a gala celebrating the 20th anniversary of the free World Mate Emergency Hospital in Battambang province.
Eang Sophalleth, a personal adviser to Hun Sen, told journalists after the meeting at the Peace Palace that the prime minister had told Kenny that the EU should not use the EBA to threaten the imposition of sanctions, which would amount to a “third mistake” made by the West in harming Cambodia.
The prime minister told Kenny that “the third mistake would be the use of the EBA to threaten sanctions on Cambodia via withdrawing access to it, taking 16 million Cambodian people hostage”, Sophalleth said.
He added that the prime minister explained to Kenny that the West had previously made two mistakes that had seriously harmed Cambodia.
The first, he said, was the backing of the 1970 Lon Nol coup against Prince Norodom Sihanouk, while the second was the support given to the Khmer Rouge in keeping the Kingdom’s seat at the UN.
In the meeting, Hun Sen thanked Ireland for helping Cambodia, especially regarding the provision of aid for the Khmer Rouge tribunal, Sophalleth said.
Meanwhile, at a meeting with over 5,000 journalists and government officials on Friday, Hun Sen insisted that Cambodia would survive without access to the EBA.
“I have recently solved some problems relating to the framework policy on business support in our country, and I have ordered [Minister for Economy and Finance] Aun Pornmoniroth to launch a campaign to strengthen Cambodia’s independence and support our business sectors."
“If we do not have the EBA,Cambodia can still survive,” the prime minister stressed.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan said the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is working on solving the EBA issue and that the EU and Cambodia are in discussions as partners in reducing poverty.
He said the government stood by its principles, including maintaining peace and political stability. “We are in discussions with each other,” he said.
Ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) spokesman Sok Eysan said the EU always backed the position of the CNRP with the former opposition party as its puppet.
“They say there have been human rights violations and democracy has gone backwards, and these serve as the pretext to eliminate the EBA for Cambodia. But in fact, Cambodia has not violated human rights and democracy has not declined."
“To counter such political and ideological pressure from liberal countries is to put in efforts to protect peace and improve independence and national sovereignty, including introducing appropriate measures to support the trade balance against the loss of the EBA, which is not the loss of a market,” he said.
Political analyst Ok Serei Sopheak said he welcomed the government’s efforts in opening up the democratic space. He said the situation would improve when the treason charge against the president of the former CNRP Kem Sokha was dropped.
“The Cambodian government has amended new political party laws, so the process is moving forward progressively. What we can do, we should keep doing. When Kem Sokha is released [from his court case], it will be the last stage . . . What we want is social unity again because it is social harmony for all of us,” he said.
Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Prak Sokhonn has said he plans to meet the EU’s Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs, Pierre Moscovici, and resolve the EBA issue at the Asean-EU meeting in the Belgian capital, Brussels, early this year.
Chan Sophal, the director of the Centre for Policy Studies, said the Cambodian economy will continue to grow with or without the EBA. He said the Kingdom will be ineligible for it in a few years anyway when it leaves the least developed country status.
“It’s too early for some sectors and some enterprises, but there are ways to compensate them or substitute them. Without the EBA, the government will feel more pressured to do more reforms, I think. There could be some pain in the short term but much more benefits in the long run,” he said.
However, political analyst Lao Mong Hay said: “Our well-off rulers can say such things. But any loss of EBA benefits would have a series of negative impacts on our exports to the EU market, our production, and finally on the jobs and livelihoods of our workers.
“The government should be the ones on the receiving end of any economic sanctions and face economic hardship themselves."
“Those rulers would be the culprits for their own hardship as they were the ones who failed to honour the country’s human rights obligations under the EBA agreement, not the EU.”