Prime Minister Hun Sen said the EU’s possible suspension of its Everything But Arms (EBA) agreement amounted to a destruction of its achievements in the Kingdom and the demise of the opposition group.
Hun Sen made the remarks while addressing more than 6,700 students during a graduation ceremony in Phnom Penh on Wednesday, a day before the government sends its official response to the EU Commission regarding the human rights situation as part of the withdrawal procedure.
The commission launched the procedure on February 12, citing “a deterioration of democracy [and] respect for human rights” in Cambodia.
It completed its report on November 12 after a three-month investigation and had given the government a month to respond.
“The achievements you have helped me make would be annulled. Your words to me would not be meaningful anymore and it would also contribute to the death of the opposition group.
“The court has already announced its procedure, how and when it will proceed with the case,” he said.
Hun Sen was apparently referring to the legal cases of Kem Sokha and opposition activists.
Sokha, the former president of the Supreme Court-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), is under court-supervised bail on a treason charge.
He was arrested in September 2017 and charged under Article 443 of the Criminal Code with “conspiracy with a foreign power”. He faces a maximum of 30 years in prison if found guilty.
The Phnom Penh Municipal Court has set January 15 as the trial date.
Hun Sen reiterated that Cambodia could only follow the EU’s recommendations that are not related to judicial affairs.
He warned that any suspension of EBA would affect not only Cambodia, but also EU businesses in general as they would have to pay more import taxes when the withdrawal takes effect.
The government’s response to the EU, he said, is merely a “reply” to its “accusations”.
“I have already told [Minister of Foreign Affairs] Prak Sokhonn that this is just a reply to what you [the EU Commission] have sent to us. I reply in terms of a dialogue, not elaboration. You have to understand this,” he said.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation spokesman Koy Kuong said on Wednesday that the ministry would issue a press release on Thursday regarding the government’s response to the EU Commission.
Hun Sen said Cambodia is not only trading with the EU, but also with other partners while diversifying its economy beyond the garment sector and others.
He said the government was keeping an eye on the Brexit situation to explore trading opportunities. Britain, he said, would remain the main importer of products from Cambodia even after leaving the bloc.
“We want to see Britain exit the EU with an agreement. If their economy remains strong after the divorce, they could buy more products from Cambodia,” he said.
In any event, he said an EBA suspension was not his main concern, saying the government cared more about a lack of water and the low rice prices faced by Cambodian farmers.
“For international affairs, I’d rather keep abreast of news on Brexit, [Myanmar’s] Rohingya issue, [US President] Donald Trump’s impeachment hearing and North Korea’s nuclear development,” he said.
Hun Sen reiterated that he would not exchange national sovereignty with aid or any preferential scheme, saying that upholding democracy and human rights could not overstep legal boundaries.
“Democracy, human rights and trade . . . all these must be practised in accordance with the law. I cannot follow the law of other [countries] and no one can force us to respect it unless it is within the UN constitution.
“You cannot force another country to follow your law. No!” he said, referring the EU bloc.
Hun Sen said he prioritised peace over democracy and human rights as they could not exist without it.
“The chicken or the egg, which one came first? Peace is born before democracy and human rights, though democracy and human rights contribute to the maintaining of peace. We have to accept this,” he said.
Royal Academy of Cambodia president Sok Touch said: “On this [EBA] issue, both sides are looking to each other.
“But what matters the most is peace, because without it we cannot talk about other things.”