Amid the upcoming partial removal of the Kingdom’s Everything-but-arms trade status by the EU, questions have been raised on whether a “political compromise” between Cambodia’s political rivals could be a last chance to save it.
The recent dialogue between Prime Minister Hun Sen and former opposition leader Kem Sokha at Mr Hun Sen’s residence in Phnom Penh, has brought hope for political development in Cambodia.
Their meeting has been welcomed by foreign diplomats who have expressed support over the event as well as the officials from both sides. Sokha is currently on trial at the Phnom Penh municipal court on a charge of “conspiracy with foreign powers.”
During a meeting with Sokha on Monday, EU ambassador Carmen Moreno “hailed the meeting between the two Cambodian dignitaries” saying the meeting was a “positive first step”, Sokha’s cabinet chief Muth Chantha said.
Mr Sokha,who also met German Ambassador Christian Berger on Monday met with French ambassador Eva Nguyen Binh yesterday. Both ambassadors also welcomed the meeting between Mr Hun Sen and Sokh.
Yang Kim Eng, president of the People Centre for Development and Peace, said yesterday dialogues between political actors and politicial developments could influence the European Union’s decisions over the EBA.
“For me, It is not too late to begin a political dialogue,” he said. “The most important thing is that the international community and Cambodian people are anxious to see political development and when or whether the matter will end.”
Mr Kim Eng said politicians should end their “political conflict” and join hands to serve the people’s interest, especially in the context of coronavirus outbreak.
He said most of Kingdom’s garment and footwear products are exported to EU’s markets and politicians should express their commitment to save the EBA.
“Like it or not, political developments will influence the EU decision,” Mr Kim Eng said. “The most important thing is that if our politicians have no willingness to compromise, then the last chance will be over.”
The European Commission in February announced it had recommended the partial removal of the EBA after it deemed Cambodia has not done enough to meet certain demands.
It said the partial withdrawal of the tariff preferences is due to the “serious and systematic violations” of the human rights principles enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
If the European Parliament and the European Council endorse the recommendation, the partial removal of the Kingdom’s Everything-but-arms trade status will take effect on August 12.
The withdrawal amounts to about one-fifth, or about $1.1 billion, of Cambodia’s yearly exports to the EU.
Former CNRP lawmaker Ou Chanrath said yesterday now would be a good time for a compromise between the two political rivals to avoid further consequences.
“I think this is what the Western countries want to see. They want to see a real political resolution. They do not tell us directly but they are encouraging us,” he said, adding that this could be noted by their response to the recent meeting between Mr Hun Sen and Sokha.
“What they did, is a positive steps but it depends on political will as well,” Mr Chanrath said. “I think if they care about national interest and democracy rather than political interest, then an actual resolution is possible.”
However, he said any efforts to save the EBA may seem to be too late but the government still has a chance to solve the problem by having the treason charge against Sokha dropped and reinstating the CNRP.
“I have noted that [the government] doesn’t have much time to solve [the EU demand] and they previously said the EU sanction is not serious at all and they can handle it,” he said. “But with the coronavirus outbreak it would make our economy face serious challenges.”
Phay Siphan, Minister Delegate Attached to the Prime Minister and head of Royal Government Spokesperson Unit said on Monday national reconciliation could only happen after Sokha’s verdict is final, not now.
“National reconciliation is not on at this stage because the case is going through court procedure,” he said. “National reconciliation can only take place after the court makes a decision.”
Mr Siphan said the EU has rights to make demands in exchange for EBA but they cannot interfere with the Kingdom’s judicial system.
“Cambodia’s courts cannot follow what they demand because the court is independent, [Their pressure] won’t influence court decisions,” he said. “The western countries follow the principle of the rule of law which is not to interfere with the judicial system, then why are they interfering with our Kingdom’s judicial system? Their demand seems to be an attempt to pressure the court.”
Mr Siphan said the Western countries, especially their embassies should leave Sokha’s case for the court to consider rather put any more pressure.
“This time is for the court and not politics,” he said. “After a final court verdict, the issue would become political and those embassies can lobby the prime minister [to request for a royal pardon for Kem Sokha],” he added.
According to the EU, the Kingdom’s imports under EBA accounted for 45 percent of exports in 2018, which reached $5.8 billion in 2018.
The EBA scheme allows Cambodia’s goods to enter the EU market 99 percent tariff-free. The loss of the EBA is predicted to cost the country millions.
The Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia has previously expressed its disappointment with EC decision and highlighted that the sectors affected currently have more than 750,000 employees and have lifted millions of Cambodians out of poverty.
Additionally, to avoid an outbreak of COVID-19, the government also ordered the temporary closure of schools, nightclubs, cinemas, casinos, and gyms and fitness centres, massage parlours and spas, among others.
The closure has left tens of thousands of workers jobless, which puts more challenges for the government to handle the problem.