DESPITE threats of sanctions from the European Union last week, Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen has taken a defiant stance against the western trade partner’s concerns on the country’s human rights violations.
During a trip to Japan on Sunday, Hun Sen, who has run the country for three decades, told Cambodian students there that the country must not grovel to foreign countries.
“No matter what measures they want to take against Cambodia, in whatever way, Cambodia must be strong in the defence of its sovereignty,” Hun Sen said during a speech to students in Tokyo shared on his Facebook page, as quoted by Reuters.
“I say it again and again: don’t exchange national sovereignty with aid, don’t exchange the peace of the country with aid.”
The EU told Cambodia on Friday it will lose its special access to the world’s largest trading bloc, and said it was considering similar trade sanctions for Burma, adding that it was ready to punish human rights abuses in both countries.
The EU warned that it had launched a six-month review of Cambodia’s duty-free access to the EU, meaning garments, sugar and other exports could face tariffs within 12 months. He did not specifically comment on how the removal of trade privileges could impact exports.
In July, the EU warned Cambodia that it could lose its special trade status after a general election that month returned Prime Minister Hun Sen to power.
Observers and rights groups said the election was not fair because the country lacked a credible opposition.
The main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) was dissolved by the country’s Supreme Court at the government’s request last year. The party did not take part in the election and CNRP leaders have fled abroad and are in living in self-imposed exile.
According to EU data, Cambodia’s exports to the European Union were worth EU5 billion (US$5.8 billion) last year, up from negligible levels less than a decade ago.
Cambodia’s textile, garments and footwear industry are vital to its economy. Around 40 percent of its GDP comes from garment exports.
The garments sector employs more than 800,000 workers. The EU and US are the country’s primary markets for exports, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO).
Last month, a UN expert on the rights situation in Cambodia said laws were being used to rein in dissent and were creating a “climate of fear” in the country.
UN Special Rapporteur for Cambodia Rhona Smith voiced alarm over a significant deterioration in the country’s political situation over the past year and urged the government to change course, according to the AFP.
In the run-up to controversial July elections, Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party backed a crackdown on perceived threats, including the shuttering of media outlets and jailing of political opponents and journalists.