Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen is wrong to assume the EU will stop at partial trade sanctions if he does not end a crackdown on voices critical of his government, observers said Wednesday, a week ahead of a planned return of tariffs to around one-fifth of Cambodian exports to the bloc.
The EU in mid-February announced plans to suspend tariff-free access to its market under the “Everything But Arms” (EBA) scheme for some 20 percent of Cambodia’s exports, citing rollbacks on democracy and human rights. The move would reinstate tariffs on goods from the country’s key garment industry beginning Aug. 12, unless it is overturned by the bloc’s governments or its parliament.
Hun Sen has said that EU demands to maintain the EBA are unreasonable and an encroachment on Cambodia’s internal affairs, and has continued to target members of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which was banned in November 2017 for its role in an alleged plot to topple the government, and other activists who have spoken out against him.
Seventeen CNRP activists have been held in pretrial detention at Cambodia’s Prey Sar Prison for “incitement to commit a felony or cause social unrest” since early this year after slamming Hun Sen’s leadership and his government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The arrest on Friday of prominent union leader Rong Chhun on similar incitement charges has sparked daily protests in the capital just days before the EU decision.
On Wednesday, Brad Adams, executive director of New York-based Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, told RFA’s Khmer Service that the EU is planning a “phased approach” in the hopes of providing an incentive to Hun Sen to improve the country’s rights situation, and is “reserving even more strong measures if things get worse.”
“I think that this is a big mistake by Hun Sen—he’s misreading the situation,” Adams said.
“He probably thinks that 20 percent is where it will stop, so he can go ahead and arrest Rong Chhun and many other people without any consequences.”
But Adams warned that the prime minister is playing with fire, noting that the coronavirus pandemic has battered Cambodia’s already weak economy with reductions in exports, lowered production in factories, and mass layoffs.
“This is a particularly bad time for a country with a weak economy to be challenging the world’s largest trading bloc and basically inviting the world’s largest trading bloc to take stronger measures,” he said.
Call for stronger measures
Adams called the return of tariffs to 20 percent of exports “a concession” by the EU to Cambodia and suggested the bloc “should have gone much harder” because Hun Sen’s government has failed to meet the terms for the trade preferences.
He also suggested that the only way to make Hun Sen change his ways is to “go after the money.”
“The reason Hun Sen and his cronies … behave the way they do is because they are fabulously wealthy—they are wealthy on an international standard, not just a Cambodian standard,” he said.
“They don’t really care about EBA because it doesn’t affect them personally. Their wealth will not change.”
Instead, Adams said, governments should work to target corruption amongst Cambodia’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) elite through individualized sanctions.
“Travel bans are important, but even more important is going after their bank accounts in foreign countries,” he said.
“These are the kinds of things that will actually hurt and would actually get their attention.”
Em Sovannara, a political analyst, told RFA Hun Sen is also miscalculating the impact the EBA withdrawal is going to have on Cambodia, and by extension, his grip on power.
“From a political perspective, in terms of foreign policy, Cambodia will lose substantial support from the international community—the European Union will only undertake additional action against the Cambodian government in order to pressure it to restore democracy and human rights,” he said.
“From a trade persecptive, losing 20 percent of the EBA will place a huge burden on the garment sector and will cost Cambodia around U.S. $1 billion a year. The reality is that Cambodia still needs to export its goods to European markets [in order to survive economically].”
Em Sovannara noted that while the EU continues to monitor human rights in Cambodia, moves by the government to arrest people like Rong Chhun and CNRP activists “will only exacerbate the situation.”
Police in Phnom Penh on Wednesday violently cracked down on a group of around 20 peaceful protesters demanding Rong Chhun’s release in front of the court where he was charged, leaving at least two young women badly injured, according to sources.
Rong Chhun, the outspoken president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions (CCU), was officially charged with “incitement to commit a felony or cause social unrest” under Article 495 of Cambodia’s Penal Code and jailed at Prey Sar Prison in Phnom Penh Saturday, a day after his arrest for claiming the government has allowed Vietnam to encroach on farmland along their shared border.
The former member of the country’s National Election Committee (NEC), who last month wrote to Hun Sen calling on the government to proactively address issues that the EU has said prompted it to end Cambodia’s EBA privileges, faces two years in prison if convicted.
Rong Chhun’s arrest also followed his joining of a group of more than 200 garment workers who gathered to submit a petition outside the home of Hun Sen to ask for his help following their factory’s closure due to the coronavirus outbreak.
On Wednesday, protester So Meta told RFA she sustained leg injuries after members of the security forces pushed her and others to the ground, before kicking and beating them.
“First they pushed us and then they kicked me in the legs several times—it hurt extremely badly because they were wearing boots,” she said, adding that none of the protesters fought back during the assault.
“After kicking me one of them stared at me like he wanted to eat me alive. When I was falling to the ground, they pulled my hand and dragged me violently. Thanks to the help of my fellow protesters, they couldn’t detain me.”
Another young woman named Chea Kunthyn said she fainted after police officers began beating her.
“The moment before I passed out, I saw [So] Meta being kicked in the legs,” she said.
“I rushed to help her but only got kicked, dragged, and thrown to the ground. I can’t believe that those male security forces mistreated us female protesters so badly.”
Despite her injuries, Chea Kunthyn vowed to continue protesting for Rong Chhun’s release.
Calls by RFA to the spokespersons of the central government, the municipal government, and the National Police went unanswered Wednesday. However, protesters said the security forces claimed they had to crack down on the gathering to “preserve public order.”
Respecting the constitution
Am Sam Ath, deputy director of Cambodian rights group Licadho, told RFA that the protest was peaceful and should not have been broken up.
“I didn’t see any public disorder caused by the protest,” he said.
“The authorities should not have used violence against them. Instead, they should respect the freedom of peaceful assembly and protests enshrined in the constitution.”
Political analyst Seng Sary said, meanwhile, that public respect for people like Rong Chhun is high because he regularly meets with them to help them with their problems, unlike lawmakers at the National Assembly, who he called “out of touch” and only willing to provide assistance during the election season.
“Rong Chhun has played the role of unionist, civil society member, and representative of people in need,” he said.
“The people are hungry for justice, so the government should be helping them to understand the current situation in Cambodia and feel better about the direction the country is moving in … All parties—including members of the public, the opposition and the government—should sit down and talk to find a [common] solution [to the country’s problems].”
The crackdown on Wednesday’s protest came as two new groups added their voices to the growing chorus calling for Rong Chhun’s release.
In a statement, the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) said Cambodian authorities should “immediately release and unconditionally drop all charges” against the union leader, and “end all attacks on those that peacefully voice their concerns.”
“Rong Chhun is being punished for doing precisely what the Cambodian government is unwilling to do—addressing people’s concerns over their land and livelihoods,” said Sarah Elago, a Philippine Member of Parliament, and member of APHR.
“Chhun’s arrest and detention reflects the highly repressive environment that human rights defenders operate in under Hun Sen’s regime. Cambodians should be able to peacefully air their grievances without the fear of reprisals.”
Belgium-based Education International also weighed in with a statement to “deplore the arrest of Rong Chhun,” who was also the former president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association—one of the group’s member organizations.
“The freedom to speak up and represent the interests of working people, as well as the right not to be penalized for the opinions expressed are indispensable to the exercise of freedom of association,” said Education International’s general secretary David Edwards, urging Cambodia to comply with its obligations under international human rights treaties.
Radio Free Asia Copyright © 1998-2016, RFA. Used with the permission of Radio Free Asia, 2025 M St. NW, Suite 300, Washington DC 20036