The opposition to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has come under threat yet again as the European Union considers withdrawing duty-free trade with Cambodia. This move, intiated in November 2018, is in response to human rights concerns over crackdowns against the opposition party in the lead up to Hun Sen’s re-election in July. However, the Cambodian PM has doubled down on Monday, threatening a “dead” opposition if the EU removes its Everything but Arms (EBA) arrangement, according to Reuters. The arrangement allows the EU to assist developing countries by offering duty-free trade on the condition of certain human rights standards being maintained.
Hun Sen made the comments in a speech at an opening of a new road in Phnom Penh where he is quoted by Reuters as saying “If you want the opposition dead, just cut it…If you want the opposition alive, don’t do it and come and hold talks together,” in reference to Cambodia’s EBA status. This follows comments he made only two days prior that the EU were “using EBA as a threat to sanction Cambodia … and take about 16 million Cambodians as hostage of the so-called EBA,” according to Rappler. So far there has been no formal response from the EU.
While Hun Sen has spoken of his country held hostage, it is apparent that it is now the opposition which are in this position. The PM has made attempts to loosen up on opposition, including pardoning activists in an effort to dissuade the EU sanctions, per Rappler. However, this has not seemed to earn the forgiveness of the EU who remember his effective destruction of the main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). The Supreme Court was hijacked to dissolve the party and 118 of the members were banned, Reuters reports. Senior opposition members including the Party President, Sam Rainsey, remain overseas for fear of facing persecution in Cambodia.
Hun Sen appears concerned that the particularly large garment industry, which employs 700 000 people and made up 40% of Cambodia’s exports in 2016 according to Reuters, will be hit hardest by the change. This is one of the few areas where the 34-year PM may not have full control and as such could greatly affect his popularity. It is true that withdrawing the EBA status of Cambodia will adversely affect some of its poorest and most vulnerable workers.
So, though clear as it is that the undemocratic actions of Hun Sen have deservedly drawn the ire of the EU, it is a difficult situation to effectively remedy. On the one hand revoking the EBA arrangement is an action that the EU can take to signal the abuses of human rights that have been ongoing under Hun Sen’s leadership. On the other, the cost to the impoverished workers and now possibly the opposition has the potential to be devastating. Indeed, even if Hun Sen’s words on the opposition are revealed to be bluster, it is still a difficult situation for garment workers who look set to take the brunt of the punishment aimed at the ones at the top.