COVID-19 Op-ed

Cambodia Needs to End its State Repression and “Double Standard” Narrative

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Kimkong HengKimkong Heng is a
PhD candidate at the University of Queensland in Australia and a Visiting
Senior Fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace (CICP). He
is a co-founder of Cambodian Education Forum and a recipient of the Australia
Awards Scholarship. All views expressed are his
own.

In recent years, the human rights situation in Cambodia has
deteriorated as the country is transitioning to hegemonic authoritarianism
(Morgenbesser,
2019; Un,
2019). The country’s descent into authoritarianism has raised eyebrows among
major democracies such as the United States and the European Union, leading
them to impose sanctions on Cambodia in various forms.The US passed a
Cambodia Democracy Act of 2019, which resulted in asset freezes and visa
restrictions on several of Cambodia’s senior officials and military generals
seen as responsible for undermining democracy and violating human rights in
Cambodia (Prak,
2019
). The EU decided to partially withdraw its Everything But Arms
(EBA) trade scheme, which Cambodia has enjoyed since 2001 (European
Commission
, 2020).The EU’s EBA withdrawal is considered by the
Cambodian government as an interference with Cambodia’s internal affairs and
a double standard pursued by the EU. The Cambodian government argues that the
EU imposes trade sanctions on Cambodia but ignores appalling human rights
records in other countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam (see Heng,
2020a; Human Rights Watch , 2019).This article argues that Cambodia must move
beyond its “double standard” narrative if it wants to sustain its good
relations with the EU and prevent further loss of trade benefits under the
EBA scheme (see Heng,
2020b). It also calls for an end to the Cambodian government’s increasing
repression on activists and government critics.In fact, given the need to
recover its economy that has been severely hit by the COVID-19 pandemic,
Cambodia must constructively engage its key trading partners such as the US,
the EU and others. The country must jettison
its narrative promulgating that the EU is being unfair in its treatment of
Cambodia and that the bloc is practicing double standards when it decided to
withdraw its EBA trade scheme (Heng, 2020c).The EU’s decision to partially
withdraw
the EBA trade scheme from Cambodia took effect on 12
August. This decision means that Cambodia has lost about one-fifth (or
approximately $1 billion) of its tariff-free and quota-free exports to the
European market (European
Commission
, 2020). The EU’s EBA withdrawal was believed to reverse
Cambodia’s democratic drift; however, recent developments on the ground
appear otherwise. State repression on activists has increased since the
beginning of 2020. A number of arbitrary arrests have been reported, many of
which were charged with spreading COVID-19 fake news and incitement to cause
social unrest (HRW,
2020a; LICADHO,
2020)Since the EU decided to begin the formal procedure to withdraw EBA from
Cambodia in October 2018, the Cambodian government has used a narrative along
the lines of “the
EU’s double standards
” to influence public opinion (Khmer Times,
2018). This narrative has neither been helpful nor effective. In fact, it is
counterproductive, adding fuel to divisions among Cambodians and potentially
preventing constructive dialogue between the two parties after the EBA scheme
is partially withdrawn. At worst, the narrative, if used excessively, may
damage Cambodia-EU relations in the long run.Thus, considering the fact that
Cambodia has already lost about 20 percent of the benefits it has enjoyed
under the EBA scheme, the government and its officials need to refrain from
promulgating narratives that only lead to further divisions among the
Cambodian people and potentially result in more loss of trade
benefits.Although it appears to be logical to consider the EU’s EBA sanctions
as “extreme
injustice
” or “double standards” (Reuters Staff, 2018) by comparing
how the bloc treats Cambodia vis-a-vis other countries in Southeast Asia, it
is not viable to keep spreading such narratives. Dubbing the EU as unjust,
immoral or hypocritical will contribute nothing to improve the status
quo.Cambodia has already lost a portion of the benefits given under the EBA
program. Its economy has experienced the slowest
growth
since the early 1990s (World Bank, 2020). The country’s
major industries such as tourism and manufacturing have been profoundly
impacted by COVID-19. So far, around 250
factories
 have suspended operations, leaving more than 130,000
workers jobless (Mandhana & Myo, 2020).Instead of findings solutions
to continue to enjoy the EBA benefits by engaging the EU in a more constructive
manner, Cambodia seems to be adamant believing that it has already done the
best it can. This perception tends to raise a few, if not many, questions.
For example, why does the Cambodian government not find ways to compromise
and resolve this EBA issue so that Cambodia continue to enjoy the benefits
rather than lose them? What is the government’s main priority: national
interests or domination of domestic politics? Why can the government not
improve the rule of law and human rights situation, seen by the EU and other
democratic countries as deteriorating? Many more questions like these can be
asked.The crux of the EBA issue is linked with the government’s unprecedented
crackdown on dissent and opposition group. In 2017, about one year before the
general election in July 2018, the crackdown was on full display. An
independent English-language newspaper, The Cambodia Daily, was forced to
shut its doors because of a huge unpaid tax bill (BBC,
2017). Another English-language newspaper, the Phnom Penh Post, believed to
be the last independent newspaper in the country was sold a Malaysian
businessman whose company has ties to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (HRW,
2018).Worse than the attack on media freedom were the dissolution of the only
viable opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, and the arrest
of its leader on charges of conducting a color revolution to topple the
legitimate government (Ben, Mech, & Baliga, 2017; Niem, 2018). The
crackdown has been ongoing and appeared to get worse since then. For example,
in the first half of 2020, the Human Right Watch reported that many people
were arrested, with 80 were released on bail and could face re-arrest (HRW,
2020b). Since late July, at least 24 activists including youth and
environmental activists have been arrested (see LICADHO, 2020; Turton
& Phorn, 2020). These arrests, many of which were arbitrary
(HRW, 2020a), look set to increase as many youth and activists are stepping
up to demand the release of prominent union leader Rong Chhun, a long-time
government critic, who was arrested on 31 July (Phoung, 2020).The
continuation of the Cambodian government’s crackdown on dissent through
arrests and imprisonment will no doubt draw more criticism and sanctions by
the international community, negatively affecting Cambodia’s efforts to
recover its economy that has been damaged by COVID-19.Thus, it is imperative
that the government led by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party reconsider its
repressive measures. When partially withdrawing its EBA scheme from Cambodia,
the EU noted that
it would consider restoring “fully free access” to the EU market for
Cambodian products, if the Kingdom made a “substantial improvement” in human
rights and labor rights (European Commission, 2020). However, recent
developments seem to go against the EU’s call, which is worrisome and does
not bode well for the future of democracy in Cambodia.Cambodia is a poor
country that still needs support from its development partners, including the
EU, the US and their allies. Although China’s role and influence in Cambodia
have recently become more prominent, Cambodia has to be strategic in its
engagement with China. It needs to be smart and flexible, ensuring that its
relations with China would not upset the West and vice versa. This is a
challenge facing Cambodia and many countries in the region amid the growing
great power rivalry for influence in the Asia-Pacific region.Cambodia might
be caught
in the middle
 of this strategic competition if it is unable to
maneuver its foreign policy that can effectively navigate the US-China
rivalry (Heng, 2020d). Thus, in the face of this geopolitical challenge,
Cambodia needs to be smarter, more diplomatic and more flexible.There are
many things Cambodia must do to catch up with neighboring countries and
others in the region, including diversifying its export markets, expediting
reforms to state institutions, revitalizing its underdeveloped
agricultural industry
and prioritizing
education, research and technology adoption, among other priorities (see
Heng, 2020e, 2020f).However, post-EBA Cambodia needs to make greater efforts
to provide more freedom for its citizens to express their concerns on social
and political issues of importance to them and their community. Restricting
and silencing its own people through force, legal means and other desperate
measures should be put to end.While it is now vital for Cambodia to jettison
its EU “double standard” narrative and engage the bloc more constructively to
bring about maximum benefits for Cambodian society, the Cambodian government
must end its repression on the political opposition, government critics,
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