‘A bit harsh’: Cambodia’s response to its growing list of critics
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‘A bit harsh’: Cambodia’s response to its growing list of critics

CRITICISM of the Cambodian government and their crackdown on human rights is “a bit harsh” according to the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, who is arguing the case for Prime Minister Hun Sen’s autocratic rule in the hopes of winning back international favour.

The former Khmer Rouge commander’s crackdown on dissent has gained him more than a few critics – most notably among them is the United Nations and European Union, who recently threatened to withdraw the country from its tariff-free trade agreement.

Despite Hun Sen’s public confidence and bragging about Chinese investment, the threat from the EU ruffled some feathers in a country that relies heavily on the EU garment trade. The warning prompted the government to send a delegation to the EU on Thursday to argue Cambodia’s case; the aim being to lobby the EU and prevent the removal of Cambodia from the blocs “Everything But Arms” initiative (EBA), a preferential market access scheme that provides duty-free and quota-free access to the EU market for the world’s least developed countries.

In their argument, the mission of delegates addresses allegations of “serious and systematic violations of the fundamental social rights” that the EU has levelled at Hun Sen’s administration, as well as charges made by the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia that they claim are “unbalanced, biased, and partial.”

The dissolution of the opposition

In November, under Hun Sen’s recommendation, the Supreme Court dissolved the only credible opposition, the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), citing evidence of treason and conspiring with the United States to overthrow the government.

To justify this lack of opposition in the run-up to the July 29 election, the mission cites the “populist tirades” of the CNRP and accuses them of “throwing indiscriminate insults and slanders, inciting to racial hatred and xenophobia,” as well as using “provocations aimed at exciting nationalist tendencies and jeopardising peaceful relations” with Vietnam.

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The government maintains that it was acting within its rights when it abolished the CNRP based on “facts and evidence clearly established” that treasonous acts were being carried out.

The document claims it is not the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, but the behaviour of the opposition party that “does not bear even a semblance of democracy.” It even goes so far as to appeal to the EU for assistance to “properly coach people (politicians)… on proper democratic behaviours and principles.”

Non-Governmental Organisations and Media

NGOs have been warned they could fall foul of the law if they don’t remain politically impartial or if they receive foreign funding. In August, the Cambodia Daily reported Hun Sen’s warning speech saying, “please retreat. We are watching you. Your NGOs could be dissolved via the party law.”

US-funded National Democratic Institute became the first victim in August when it was given seven days to shut down and send its foreign staff packing.

The mission argues that criticisms of this action have come from only a small minority of NGOs and points to the “vibrant community of some 6,000 NGOs” that continue to operate in country as evidence that concerns for freedom of association are blown out of proportion.

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They use the same argument against the closure of prominent newspapers and media outlets. A move the UN called “repression of freedom of the media.”

The Cambodia Daily was forced to close its doors last year after it was saddled with a US$6.3 million tax bill. Around the same time, the government ordered the closure of more than a dozen radio stations that it said had violated broadcasting regulations.

But the abundance of other newspapers, radio stations, and television channels that are “operating freely” that show the government’s commitment to “unfettered” media.

Long way to go

While the government admits it has a long way to go, it implores that sanctions and removal from the EBA is not the answer.

Blaming past sanctions and embargoes throughout the 80s as the “source of the current Cambodian political drama,” the report claims it would be a “terrible injustice” for such measures to be reimposed when the government is simply trying to prioritise “the maintenance of peace, stability and its development.”

As testament to its commitment to free and fair elections, the delegation invites EU members to witness the “electoral campaign process, the counting of ballots and seat allocations” to demonstrate the government’s commitment to making the July election a “success for democracy.”