After more than four years in the Kingdom, former UK Ambassador to Cambodia Bill Longhurst speaks with Khmer Times’ Editor-in-Chief Cheang Sokha about current relations between the two countries, the political situation in Cambodia and Brexit’s effect on the country.
KT: What is your main achievement during your mission in Cambodia?
Mr Longhurst: As one of the smaller embassies in Phnom Penh, my main priority was to focus our efforts and resources in specific areas where we could make some sort of local impact and support and encourage positive change. All of these achievements have only been possible through close teamwork, creativity and imagination.
The British embassy has helped significantly raise the profile of STEM education across Cambodia and helped increase the number of students studying STEM subjects at university in order to fill a chronic skills gap in the country. The key to this was setting out the benefits to students studying these subjects and demonstrating the sort of exciting careers that might then open up for them. Through our projects, we addressed misperceptions about STEM both in students and more importantly in parents. Our STEM projects, such as the STEM Bus Roadshow, Little Scientists Magazine, and online Small Business Forum, have engaged and interacted with more than one million individuals. Looking ahead, the British embassy is now focusing on campaigns to promote Technical and Vocational Education Training.
We have also cultivated and supported promising ‘young leaders’ of Cambodia, in political, business and civil society through scholarships, internships, and mentoring schemes. Previously, only three or four Cambodians each year were given the Chevening Awards, but now we have worked to increase the number to at least 20 scholarships per year. So, since 2014, we have sent more than 60 Cambodian students to study for master’s degrees in the UK.
KT: What other projects is the UK involved in with the government and also civil society organisations?
Mr Longhurst: In addition to the projects mentioned above, we have supported democratic and sustainable development, mine clearance and education, promoting the legacy and significance of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, tackling the illegal wildlife trade, and promoting sustainable livelihoods in rural provinces. The British embassy has worked actively with key stakeholders including the Cambodian government, civil society, think-tanks and the private sector for all these activities.
KT: Cambodia is to hold its national election on July 29 with 20 political parties registered to compete in the aftermath of the opposition CNRP’s dissolution and its leader Kem Sokha being jailed on treason charges. What is your view on this election?
Mr Longhurst: The UK was one of a group of states at the UN Human Rights Council this month who expressed our deep dismay at the further deterioration of democratic freedoms in Cambodia. We have repeatedly urged the Cambodian government to release Kem Sokha immediately and unconditionally and also to lift the ban on 118 opposition politicians. The UK’s Minister for Asia, Mark Field, has urged the Cambodian government to take immediate steps to restore prospects for a free and fair national election in 2018 and to build on the encouraging progress we saw at Cambodia’s nationwide commune elections in 2017.
KT: Do you think the election can be free and fair and will the UK be sending observers?
Mr Longhurst: The possibility of a free and fair election in Cambodia now appears slim. We note that 20 parties will compete in the election. However, our basic view remains that in any fully functional democracy, the government does not enjoy the right to choose its own opposition. The UK will not send any formal expert observation or monitoring mission for the upcoming election in Cambodia.
KT: The UK is one of the main exporting markets for Cambodia in Europe, however, since the UK held a referendum to exit the EU, it has raised concerns for Cambodia regarding exports under the Everything-but-arms scheme. Can you tell us what effect Brexit may have on Cambodia?
Mr Longhurst: Under current EU arrangements, the UK offers Duty Free Quota Free access for Cambodia on all goods which they are exporting to the UK, other than arms and ammunition. Trading opportunities are key to reducing poverty. That is why the UK government, post-Brexit, will continue to promote and advocate for global free-trade and has committed to securing existing duty-free access to UK markets for 48 developing countries including Cambodia, subject to the same conditions as the EBA.
KT: It seems that although Cambodia is quite open in terms of trade policies and investment policies, we don’t attract much investment from the UK. What are the main barriers?
Mr Longhurst: Actually, the UK remains the largest European investor in Cambodia. In 2017, the total value of Foreign Direct Investment from the UK stood at $49 million, making the UK the sixth largest source of FDI in the country. The number of trade enquiries from British companies interested in investing in Cambodia continues to grow rapidly and the British Chamber of Commerce assisted more than 340 British companies in 2017/18. It is worth noting that Cambodia’s imports from the UK doubled last year, while Cambodia’s exports to the UK market also increased by five percent, at $1.16 billion.
However, there is clearly room to do much more and Cambodia needs to target high-quality investment. This is potentially achievable if certain structural issues can be addressed, such as the weak judicial system, corruption and uneven tax and regulatory compliance. These challenges often put ethical companies at a disadvantage against their less principled competitors.