Prime Minister Hun Sen on Wednesday reiterated that he would not be overly concerned if Cambodia had its access to the EU’s “Everything But Arms” (EBA) scheme withdrawn because the Kingdom would not die without it.
Hun Sen was speaking to factory workers in Pursat province while an EU delegation was meeting with Cambodian ministries to discuss the possible EBA withdrawal.
“The last few days a [delegation] has been sent here regarding EBA. OK, come to solve [the problem]. Hun Sen goes to meet workers and farmers. Everyone continues with their jobs. What you talk to them about, it’s up to you. But finally, it is Hun Sen who makes decisions,” he said.
Hun Sen may have been referring to Sam Rainsy, the “acting president” of the Supreme Court-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), who last Friday wrote a letter to the European Commission requesting it hold firm in “restoring” democracy in Cambodia.
“I have nothing to be afraid of in talking about this. Who is doing the monitoring? I have already said that if they give us preferential access, it won’t make us rich. If they withdraw it from us, it won’t make us dead."
“Do you understand this point? We are undertaking reforms. On March 29, I will announce a reform package to ensure that Cambodia’s economy will not be affected by external factors."
“Look, when our economy is dependent on others, our independence is limited. We are not brave enough to talk to those who give us aid because we are afraid that they will cut that aid."
“But when we are independent, having enough to eat, we don’t depend on them and have an equal voice and rights, but not to control others. It is a voice a family needs, and an independent sovereign state needs this too,” Hun Sen stressed.
Senior officials from the European External Action Service and the EU Directorate-General for Trade were in Cambodia on a two-day visit over Tuesday and Wednesday as part of the process to possibly withdraw access to the EBA.
On Wednesday, they met Minister of Interior Sar Kheng and Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Prak Sokhonn.
At the Ministry of Interior, the delegation held discussions that lasted more than an hour.
Ministry of Interior spokesperson Phat Sophanit said the talks touched on two main topics – the political space in Cambodia and civil society participation in a democratic society.
The EU delegation said the visit aimed at frank discussions between the two sides on the topics, he said.
“The EU delegation wanted to know about the political space in Cambodia and discuss the participation of NGOs and civil society in a country’s development.
“Sar Kheng said the government regards NGOs as partners and has improved that partnership by recently organising two forums with civil societies – one by the Ministry of Interior and another by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs,” Sophanit said.
He said Sar Kheng told the delegation that Cambodia had passed an NGO law after discussions with civil societies through similar forums. The minister of interior also requested NGOs to regard the government as a partner. The delegation agreed with this, Sophanit said.
“The head of the delegation said the EU doesn’t support any individual or any individual political party. What the EU wants are principles where all stakeholders in society contribute to development in Cambodia,” he said.
He said Sar Kheng told the EU delegation that democratic principles were rooted in Cambodia, even though it is not yet a perfect example. He said Cambodia would not stray from democracy because it is clearly stated in the Constitution.
“The head of the EU delegation said it had come to Cambodia not to withdraw EBA but to work together with the government and open dialogue to find common grounds for a solution to strengthen cooperation,” Sophanit said.
He said the delegation wished for the EU to continue working with Cambodia as in the past.
Sophanit said Sar Kheng had vowed to enhance cooperation with NGOs, civil societies and political parties to improve labour rights and resolve land conflicts.
“Sar Kheng said he believed the visit of the EU delegation would find a solution for the sake of the Cambodian and European people,” he said.
The EU delegation also met Foreign Minister Sokhonn in the afternoon.
Ministry spokesperson Ket Sophann told the media after the meeting that both sides were committed to finding a solution.
“The discussion today was on the procedure for withdrawing EBA. Both sides are committed to keeping Cambodia’s access to EBA from being lost."
“The EU delegation also stressed that discussions on the whole EBA [withdrawal] procedure would continue,” Sophann was quoted by Fresh News as saying.
Sok Touch, president of the Royal Academy of Cambodia, said the prime minister was pushing ahead without overly worrying about EBA because investors from China, Japan, South Korea and India were heading to Cambodia.
“They said Cambodia is backsliding regarding human rights and democracy. What about Myanmar, where the Rohingya [minority] have been killed? And what about Laos, which only has a single party? Cambodia did not kill anyone,” he said.
The European Commission has cited serious human rights violations and backsliding of democracy as being behind its decision to start the EBA withdrawal process.
The EU’s EBA scheme gives Least Developed status countries duty and tariff free imports to the 28-nation bloc. It is reported to be worth $676 million annually to Cambodia.