Cambodia has been well-equipped to handle the socio-economic fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic and the EU’s partial withdrawal of its ‘Everything But Arms’ (EBA) preferential trade scheme, academics said on Friday.
The suspension requires 40 products listed under Harmonised System (HS) codes to be taxed on arrival, and affects one-fifth or €1 billion ($1.19 billion) of Cambodia’s annual exports to the EU bloc.
Speaking at a roundtable discussion organised by the Royal Academy of Cambodia (RAC) in Phnom Penh, analyst and historian Diep Sophal said the EU’s EBA withdrawal has had minimal economic impact on the Kingdom.
“Though the 20 per cent withdrawal does not affect our economy much given its current scale, the withdrawal of EBA does afflict me personally on an emotional level.
“Why does it have such an emotional impact? Because they cut . . . EBA, having wanting us to follow a democracy that they recommended for us.
“We don’t bow our heads. And who demanded the withdrawal of EBA? It was the former opposition party. They stirred up a storm, the likes which could potentially subvert a society into anarchy. The protests in 2013 led society into chaos and resulted in the dissolution of the party,” he said, referring to the former Supreme Court-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).
Sophal said the EU had turned a blind eye to a number of the Kingdom’s good deeds, including allowing the MS Westerdam cruise ship to dock after it was barred by many other nations, and sending troops to UN peacekeeping missions.
He stressed that nearly ten thousands soldiers had been sent to conflict-affected countries, about 20 of whom were killed on duty.
“Why can’t they see Cambodia’s good intentions? That’s why I wonder whether human rights laws protect criminals or the general public. What does it mean if a political party committed a crime and stirred chaos in society, but are then protected [by the EU]?” he asked.
RAC president Sok Touch was quick to point out that Covid-19 muted any effects the withdrawal could have had on the Kingdom’s economy.
The withdrawal was merely a “political bargaining tool”, he said, joking that Europeans are now confined to their homes and are no longer buying clothes and shoes, which are major Cambodian exports to the continent.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan on Sunday said the Kingdom had braced itself for the brunt of a full EBA withdrawal, noting that GDP per capita has exceeded $1,500.
“We were expecting Cambodia to lose all [of EBA] . . . Announcement of the EBA suspension came as good news for Cambodia . . . enabling us to prepare ourselves and diversify our trade markets. It was the groundwork for ‘self-reliance’.
“The government was constantly bombarded with blame for accepting foreign aid. Now that foreign aid has come to an end, we are content with our efforts, capacities and knowledge in protecting our image and sovereignty. We cannot be weak and exchange [aid] for our sovereignty,” he said.
European Institute for Asian Studies (EIAS) associate researcher Cindy Cao on Sunday said the EU had sanctioned Cambodia for purportedly having violated democratic principles. The intended message to the world was that the government had “violated international norms”.
She said: “This has created or reinforced an international climate of opinion very critical of the practices of the government. Many agree that the government has violated democratic principles.”