A European Parliament resolution last week calling for the possible suspension of Cambodia’s preferential trade status prompted a strong reaction from Prime Minister Hun Sen, who yesterday sternly dared the bloc to “cut it!”
Speaking to garment factory workers on Koh Pich yesterday, the premier said Cambodia would neither beg for developed powers’ table scraps nor acquiesce to their threats.
“Do not be the dog that acts just for only a bone or a piece of meat – it is not valuable. For example, they threatened that, ‘If you do not follow my order, I will cut this and that’. Cut it!” he said, insinuating that the EU was favouring the opposition, which won 44 percent of the vote in 2013, at the expense of the broader populace. “You cut that and you choose either a few people or 15 million people.”
On Thursday, the European Parliament passed a resolution urging the External Action Service and the European Commission to consider imposing visa sanctions and freezing the assets of Cambodian officials who were involved in the widely condemned dissolution of the Kingdom’s main opposition, the Cambodia National Rescue Party. They also called on the Commission to consider reviewing the Everything But Arms agreement, under which Cambodia enjoys preferential trade treatment.
Referring to visa restrictions, which have already been imposed by the United States, Hun Sen threatened to react with a tit-for-tat policy. “Do not forget that they also need to enter our country, and we will restrict it, and it is not wrong,” he said.
The premier went on to criticise the power imbalance in receiving aid. “If we want aid, we need to bow and just say ‘yes’. Can a nation do that? I . . . cannot do that because I hate the invasion of the foreigners,” he said.
Despite the assertion, the premier was himself part of a Vietnamese-backed invasion that ousted the Khmer Rouge in 1979.
EU Ambassador George Edgar could not be reached yesterday, and the US Embassy declined to comment.
The remarks were the second time in three days that the premier hit out at the EU. On Friday, at a ceremony for gold medal winners at the 29th South East Asia Games at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh, he also mockingly dared the EU to follow through on its parliament’s resolution.
“I want to encourage the EU to freeze the property of Cambodian leaders . . . and for it not to be [only] a threat,” he said, noting that five critical resolutions had been passed by the European Parliament without ever having drawn consequences.
What’s more, he maintained, visa restrictions and asset freezes didn’t matter. “How many government and CPP officials have property abroad?” he asked, before appearing to scold those who did.
“If you are stupid enough, you keep it there,” he said, adding his own property was only schools, pagodas, ponds, canals and wells.
But political analyst Meas Nee said that while Hun Sen personally might not suffer from such measures, they could nonetheless have a strong negative impact on Cambodia’s reputation, and even its standing in Asean. “Many Asean countries are more aligned to the West,” he said, pointing to Thailand and Vietnam, which he said were closely linked to the US.
Barbara Lochbihler, vice chair for the European Parliament’s Human Rights Committee and one of the politicians who signed the resolution, agreed in an interview on Friday.
“Naturally [Hun Sen] wants Cambodia to be a reputable country and for him to be seen as a reputable and capable politician,” she said. “Of course he and his children can invest their money elsewhere. His wealth won’t be broken down with these sanctions. But his reputation is publicly damaged.”
In his Friday remarks, Hun Sen also appeared to boast of eradicating the CNRP – the only viable competitor to his long-ruling Cambodian People’s Party. Echoing ruling party rhetoric that the CNRP had been fomenting “revolution” with the help of the US and EU, Hun Sen taunted “big and rich countries” for being angry at the treatment of their “children”.
“When we break the legs of their children, who robbed and stole things from us . . . the father will be furious … The father is furious because his children got broken legs while they crawled to set bombs in our house,” he said.
Lochbihler, however, said this kind of rhetoric only served to distract from the issue and obscure the fact that Hun Sen could no longer dismiss the CNRP so easily. “It’s not because he broke the children’s legs, as he puts it, but because he realised, and the EU realised, that the children are not children anymore, but experienced politicians who indeed are an alternative to him and his party. That’s why he reacted like that, that’s what he’s distracting from,” she said.
Meanwhile, the National Assembly on Saturday expressed regret at the EU resolution, claiming that the decision to dissolve the CNRP was purely a legal matter and not an attack against the opposition as the European Parliament claimed. It would be an “unfair decision”, he argued, if the EU were to end duty-free Cambodian imports into its market.
In its statement, the Assembly suggested that by threatening to suspend the preferential trade status, the EU was protecting the wrong people.
“If Cambodia falls into war, who will be the real victim? Does the EU protect the rights of those dishonest leaders or the rights of Cambodian people?” the statement reads.
Noting Cambodia’s pivot away from the West and towards China, Lochbihler said Cambodia’s garment, shoe and bicycle exports still depended on the EU. “There’s no market for that in China that can replace this,” she said.
Speaking more generally, Lochbihler said the tone with which the Cambodian government reacted to criticism had negative impacts on their relations, noting a recent visit by an EU delegation.
“They came back being really shocked about the arrogance and ignorance with which the Cambodian [government] reacted, as if they didn’t listen at all to the criticism they voiced,” she said.
Cambodia’s Senate, meanwhile, also hit back at the EU resolution, saying it was “partial, unfair and does not reflect the truth in Cambodia”, and interfered with Cambodia’s internal affairs.
“We would like to appeal to the EU to reconsider and not do anything that can affect the progress of Cambodia, which is living with peace, security, stability and development in democratic principles,” they write.