Prime Minister Hun Sen declared that Cambodia does not need foreign aid or preferential trade agreements because its economy is strong enough to survive on its own.
The remarks, which came at a ceremony Monday to launch the country’s fourth phase of its financial management reform program, which will last from 2023 to 2027, were in response to a European Union resolution.
It called on Cambodia to release jailed opposition leader Kem Sokha, improve its human rights situation and hold free and fair elections this year – or risk further suspension of its participation in the regional bloc’s “Everything But Arms” scheme, or EBA, which allows Phnom Penh access to the European market without tariffs.
The EU already withdrew about 20 percent of the EBA scheme in 2020, equivalent to about $1.1 billion of the country’s Europe-bound exports.
Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia since 1985, repeatedly said that Cambodia can still survive without EBA status, but critics told RFA’s Khmer Service that it is an indication that he does not care about Cambodian workers and their rights.
“When Mr. Hun Sen says he does not need EBA status, that means he does not need to respect human rights or women’s rights,” said Mu Sochua, the vice president of the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party, or CNRP, which was the country’s main opposition party prior to its dissolution by the Supreme Court on unsubstantiated claims of election fraud in 2017.
Mu Sochua said that losing EBA status completely would result in catastrophically high unemployment in Cambodia and would disproportionately affect women, who make up the majority of factory employees.
“Not only would factory workers lose their jobs, but also farmers and their families, small food vendors, and grocery stores around the factories, they would all lose their businesses too,” she said, adding that the female workers would then have to look for jobs in the entertainment sector or risk their lives looking for jobs abroad.
Reforms sparked survival
At Monday’s reform launch, Hun Sen also said that after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979, Cambodia carried out major political and economic reforms under his leadership to restore the country without waiting for any assistance from abroad, and that is the reason it has survived until now.
“In my life, I have encountered countless risks all the time,” he said. “Not only when I risked my neck for the survival of the people by leaving the Khmer Rouge regime, and not only when I risked my neck for peace that UNTAC was not able to attain, but I also risked my neck for reforms when I acquired formal post as the prime minister.”
Following the 1970 coup d'etat that installed Prime Minister Lon Nol as Cambodia’s head of state, Hun Sen joined the Khmer Rouge and fought what he considered to be foreign interference for the next seven years.
When internal purges in the Khmer Rouge regime started in 1977, Hun Sen fled with many of the soldiers under his command to Vietnam, returning with the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia that defeated the Khmer Rouge. He was installed as deputy prime minister of the Vietnamese backed People’s Republic of Kampuchea in 1979, then in 1985, the national assembly elected him as prime minister.
With the Khmer Rouge still in control of parts of the country, Hun Sen was instrumental in the 1991 Paris Peace Talks that would broker a ceasefire and an end to the Cambodian-Vietnamese War and and brought in the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia, or UNTAC, to keep the peace as the country held elections in 1993.
When the elections favored another party over his Cambodian People’s Party, Hun Sen threatened to secede with seven provinces. It was then that UNTAC and the other party agreed to allow him to serve as second prime minister until 1997, when he led a coup that installed an interim first prime minister until elections the following year where his party was successful enough that it was able to elect him as the country’s lone prime minister, the office he holds today.
Praise and criticism
Hun Sen on Monday also accused the United States of supporting the 1970 coup and supporting the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime led by Pol Pot.
He also took the opportunity to praise Vietnam, saying that the presence of Vietnamese troops in Cambodia during the earlier years of his reign not only helped to overthrow and prevent the return of the Khmer Rouge, it also helped Cambodia advance in its political, economic and social relations.
Social development researcher Meas Ny told RFA that Hun Sen's remarks reflect the reality of post-war political turmoil in Cambodia.
However, he said that the current sanctions on Cambodia are a result of Phnom Penh’s lack of respect for human rights and unwillingness to follow the path of democracy in accordance with the principles of international law.
Meas Ny said that although Cambodia claims to be able to survive without foreign aid, its development and economy may be sluggish compared to other countries in the region.
“At the present, every country needs commercial and economic relations with other countries,” said Meas Ny. “If we lose part of a relationship, it could lead us to an abnormal economic situation and we will be unable to catch up with other countries.”
Former CNRP lawmaker Oum Sam An dismissed Hun Sen's claims as overly political fabrications of facts intended to draw votes in this year’s elections, scheduled for July.
He said reforms invoked by the People’s Republic of Kampuchea between 1978 and 1992 focused only on strengthening party power, and because of its adherence to the Marxist-Leninist ideology, it made the country’s economy reliant on the aid of communist allies like Vietnam and the Soviet Union. This made Cambodians suffer from hunger and hardship.
“If the international community left Cambodia alone and let Cambodians depend on the economic reforms of Hun Sen, our Khmer people would still be living in misery and Cambodia would not have a bustling garment factory industry like today,” said Oum Sam An.
“The livelihood of Cambodian people would have been the same as it was back in the 1980s.”
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