By Kimkong Heng
The European Union and the United States face a Cambodia dilemma: Both have imposed sanctions in response to Cambodia’s drift from democracy, risking Phnom Penh’s further alignment with Beijing and thus strengthening China’s ascent, something Europe and the US have also sought to prevent. However, too soft of an approach risks encouraging the rise of authoritarianism in Southeast Asia.
What, then, is to be done?
Following the dissolution of the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in 2017, the US cut aid to Cambodia, while imposing sanctions on several senior Cambodian military officers and tycoons who have close ties with the ruling Cambodian People’s Party. Ties had already been strained when, earlier in 2017, Phnom Penh decided to cancel joint Angkor Sentinel military exercises. Although both countries are working to mend relations, it remains unclear how this détente will last: the Covid-19 pandemic has escalated the US-China strategic rivalry and reaffirmed President Donald Trump’s strategy of “America First.”
The EU, on the other hand, cites Cambodia’s worsening human and labor rights violations as the justification for suspending the Everything But Arms trade agreement. The EU argues that Cambodia’s democracy has declined after unprecedented government crackdowns on press freedom and the banning of the CNRP, and that trade sanctions are intended to reverse the latter’s drift away from democracy.
However, Phnom Penh considers the move a threat to its sovereignty and interference in Cambodia’s internal affairs and has pushed back especially hard against them. The government argues that the CNRP was dissolved by Cambodia’s Supreme Court in November 2017 because it was convicted of espionage and colluding with foreign powers to topple the government.
Furthermore, they argue, if the EU really cared about human rights, why would it forge trade agreements with Vietnam, with its “appalling” human rights record? Why does the EU not impose trade sanctions on countries with a deteriorating human rightsrecord, such as the Philippines?