In a move aimed at countering European criticism of his rule, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen arrived in Brussels on Wednesday for top-level meetings hoping to persuade European leaders to forgo threatened sanctions against his government following national elections widely regarded as rigged.
Meanwhile, Cambodians living abroad have planned protests against Hun Sen in Brussels on Oct. 19, the second day of a two-day Asia Europe Meeting (ASEM), a gathering of heads of state and government and business leaders from the two continents held to provide a forum for political discussions among the 53-member group.
Speaking to RFA’s Khmer Service on Oct. 17, protester Ouk Sam Oeurn said he hopes that pressure from the European Union, which threatened Cambodia earlier this month with a loss of preferential trade policies, will now force Hun Sen to restore democracy in the authoritarian Southeast Asian country.
Hun Sen added five years to his 33 years ruling Cambodia in July elections. His party won all 125 seats contested because courts beholden to Hun Sen had banned the only serious opposition party in late 2017.
“We want to express our view that we don’t recognize Hun Sen’s government, and that he is not our prime minister,” Ouk Sam Oeurn told RFA, with Ly Poeung—a leader in France of the now-banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP)—also saying that threats of possible violence by Hun Sen supporters will not deter protests.
“We ourselves never think about provoking violence, but we are ready for this scenario if it occurs,” he said.
Speaking to RFA, Kaing Monika—deputy secretary general of the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia (GMAC)—said that European leaders considering trade action against Cambodia should credit Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) with what he called recently improved working conditions and better pay for the country’s garment workers.
“All of these are positive results, and I believe that the EU should take these into consideration before sanctioning the garment sector,” he said.
Also speaking to RFA, Cambodian Confederation of Unions president Rong Chhun said GMAC should press Hun Sen to resume dialogue with Cambodia’s banned opposition party in a bid to ease tensions before sanctions are imposed.
On Oct. 5, the European Union informed Cambodia that it will lose preferential trade status unless it makes “clear and demonstrable improvements” to its rights record.
The EU launched a fact-finding mission to Cambodia in early July to assess whether Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government was adhering to its commitments in the Generalised Scheme of Preferences—an agreement that grants Cambodian exports tax-free entry into the European market under the Everything But Arms (EBA) scheme.
Weeks after the investigation, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) steamrolled a general election widely seen as unfree and unfair following the Supreme Court’s dissolution of the opposition CNRP for its role in an alleged plot to topple the government—guaranteeing strongman Hun Sen another term in office to add to his three decades in power.
According to the European Commission, the EU ranked as the second biggest trade partner of Cambodia in 2017, importing goods worth 5 billion euros (U.S. $5.8 billion) from the country. Key EU imports from Cambodia include textiles, footwear, and agricultural products.