PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA - The Cambodian government will have to enact substantial political reforms if it wants to retain a preferential trade agreement with the European Union, a Swedish lawmaker has warned. Under the agreement, known as Everything But Arms, Cambodia can export goods to the EU duty free, but that arrangement is contingent on the nation complying with international conventions regarding human and labor rights.
Cambodia needs to enact genuine democratic reforms, Asa Eriksson told Voice of America in an interview shortly after meeting opposition leader Kem Sokha at his house in Phnom Penh.
"I haven't seen any progress. We did see small, small things happening in late autumn. But it's not enough at all. And I would say that … to me, at least, it looks more like cosmetics: things that should tell us that the process is going in the right way, but I'm not sure that the government is willing to do the changes that are needed," she said.
Eriksson is a member of the governing Social Democrats in Sweden and serves as their international trade spokesperson. She last visited Cambodia in 2017. That same year, Kem Sokha was arrested and his party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, or CNRP, was forcibly dissolved.
Kem Sokha was released in November 2019 but remains banned from politics.
The European Union has initiated an investigation into Cambodia's human rights record that could lead to potential suspension of its Everything But Arms trade privileges. With the loss of EU assistance to reach European markets, some experts are concerned that key sectors in Cambodia such as garments and footwear could become smaller. The EU is expected to make a formal announcement in mid-February.
Reaction from Cambodia
While EBA was "necessary" and "critical" to Cambodia, government spokesman Phay Siphan said that officials prioritized "peace, stability, and sovereignty."
Phay Siphan added that withdrawing the trade agreement would be a blow to the Cambodian government, but could be mitigated.
"We understand that it is a short period of impact … but the government [will] do our most critical thing to settle the crisis … such as finding a new market in the world," he told VOA in a phone interview.
Meanwhile, Kem Sokha's trial on charges of treason — which many view as unfounded — is scheduled to begin next week, two months after investigations closed.
Eriksson expressed hope for Kem Sokha's acquittal.
"Of course, what Mr. Sokha hopes for is that he will be released and I hope so too," she said. "[But] most people and organizations we have met with so far think that he will not be released, but may be pardoned by the king later."
Eriksson has said, in addition to releasing Kem Sokha, the government needs to reinstate his political rights, allow the CNRP to organize again and release all political prisoners.
Spokesman Phay Siphan said the matter rested entirely in the hands of the court, and that the government could not influence its decisions.
The spokesman was asked about a recent case in which Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen had ordered the release of dozens of CNRP activists who had been arrested between August and November in anticipation of acting opposition leader Sam Rainsy's announced return. Phay Siphan repeated that the courts were independent from the government. When pressed on the matter, the spokesman suggested the reporter lacked knowledge about the country.
"I understand the buffalo, you understand the cow," he said. "Go back to school, my friend. ... You're not smart."
The spokesman declined to elaborate.
Even if Kem Sokha received a pardon, more substantial reforms were necessary to maintain the agreement, Eriksson said. They would include allowing for viable competition in an open democratic space, she said.
The decision on whether to withdraw the EBA privileges was a sensitive issue and bore risks not only for Cambodia, the Swedish politician said.
"What would be a disaster, I think, is that the EU doesn't do anything when it's so obvious that the Cambodian government breaks the rules for EBA, because the EBA is a privilege, something that developing countries can have if they commit the work for democracy and human rights," she said.
"From an EU perspective, there are very few countries who have the favor of EBA, and there are very clear rules to have the favor of EBA," Eriksson added. "And if a country so clearly breaks those rules as Cambodia is doing, and if the EU doesn't respond to that, well, then we will be irrelevant — then anyone can break any rules."