Sweden is far from Cambodia. But its small embassy here punches above its weight.
In the last three months, three Cambodian ministers have visited Stockholm. Dozens of mid-career Cambodians travel yearly to Sweden for short term training programs. And Sweden doles out $25 million in foreign aid annually, earning this nation of 10 million people a seat at the donors’ table.
As Scandinavia’s only ambassador here, Ambassador Anna Maj Hultgard is not coasting. She questions the draft NGO law. She pursues Stockholm’s new “feminist foreign policy.”
Many Cambodians have a soft spot for Sweden. They know it is not playing big power games. Some remember that during the lonely days of Vietnam’s occupation of the 1980s, Sweden was one of only a handful of countries to deliver aid to isolated and destitute Cambodia.
Five years ago, Sweden transformed its long-running aid mission into an embassy. Last week, on the eve of Sweden’s June 6 National Day, Ambassador Anna Maj Hultgard received James Brooke of the Khmer Times in her glass-walled corner office on the 10th floor of Phnom Penh Tower.
KT: What is a “feminist foreign policy?”
Amb. Hultgard: Gender equality and equality is something that Sweden is quite good at, especially when it comes to political leadership. Half of ministers in government and half of members of parliament are women. There isn’t a quota. It just happened. Our Prime Minister started his term [Oct. 2014] by being very clear that he is heading a feminist government, and that Sweden is conducting feminist foreign policy. So gender equality is a priority. This isn’t new, but it is stressed even further.
KT: How does that translate here on the ground, in Cambodia?
Amb. Hultgard: It is required and expected in all of our development cooperation to have the perspective of gender equality. But it isn’t limited to development cooperation – we are looking at representation, consular work, all foreign policy areas, security policy…. Here at the embassy, the two heads of sections are women, and most of the diplomats are men. So the leadership within the embassy is totally female, but there are men.
KT: Is that a little like 17th century Lutheran missionaries catechizing the Laplanders? Imposing Swedish values on a foreign culture?
Amb. Hultgard: It might be. But the positive reactions coming back, when I travel in Cambodia, are strong. I was on a local bus going up to Battambang, and people recognized me as the ambassador. They were very pleased and said they think this is wonderful as a role model, and this is something that should be seen more within the Cambodian society. They told me that they hope that other government officials know what I am doing.
KT: You and the envoys of Australia and China are the three female ambassadors in Phnom Penh. You are also a working single mother. What does that say about the Scandinavian social model?
Amb. Hultgard: There are a number of policies that set society for giving equal opportunities, whether you are a woman or a man. From a woman or a mother’s perspective, kindergarten is provided at a very low cost. Parental leave is very generous. Labor market rules are very strong against any discrimination based on sex, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc.
KT: In Cambodia, the burning issue of the hour is the NGO law. How does Sweden see this? What did your government tell Cambodia’s Interior Minister Sar Kheng when he was in Stockholm two weeks ago?
Amb. Hultgard: Vibrant civil society is key in building democracy and maturing democracy everywhere. There is a concern from our government, where they see restrictions in terms of civil society in several countries and this is followed closely.…
It was raised in Stockholm by my Minister of Interior to the Deputy Prime Minister, who pointed out the importance of having an open and vibrant civil society without cumbersome restrictions.
KT: The draft has not been made public. Why the concern?
Amb. Hultgard: This draft NGO law has been discussed for a long time in Cambodia. The timing is part of what is a concern of the Swedish government, which is seeing increased restriction on civil society worldwide. With what we see happening in Russia, India, China, it becomes a part of a broader picture – of increased restrictions on civil society worldwide.
KT: Cambodia’s Foreign Minister Hor Namhong once told me that he loves aid from China because it comes without strings. Western aid – including Swedish aid – often comes with lectures about democracy and human rights. Is that interfering in the internal affairs of Cambodia?
Amb. Hultgard: From Sweden’s side, it is within our mandate. We bring up human rights issues globally, and that is not interfering with internal business. We have done it in Cambodia and in other countries as well.
KT: Since March, you have had visits in Sweden from Cambodia’s ministers of Finance and Economy, Education and now Interior. Why the interest in Sweden?
Amb. Hultgard: This year’s visits by Cambodian ministers to Sweden are important because they show an interest in Scandinavia and Sweden and provide an opportunity to share values and to see how we perceive things in different areas.
KT: What is the flow of Swedes to Cambodia?
Amb. Hultgard: The number of Swedish applicants for Cambodian visas is increasing, hitting around 15,000 last year.
KT: Last weekend saw the tragic death of the Finnish owner of the Suomi Guesthouse. Does your embassy give consular assistance to Scandinavians here?
Amb. Hultgard: We give consular support to all Nordic countries – Finland, Denmark, Iceland, Norway. If there is no Swedish consulate somewhere, and a Swede has a problem, that Swede can go to another Nordic consulate or another EU embassy.
KT: Why did Cambodia’s Interior Minister, the Kingdom’s “top cop,” go to Sweden last month?
Amb. Hultgard: For several years, Sweden has had law enforcement agreements with Thailand and Vietnam. So Cambodia was high on the list. This is mainly about the exchange of information in combating serious crime. We have seen pedophilia, cyber crime, and drug smuggling.