Hun Sen’s big gamble

The arrest of prominent Cambodian unionist and long-time government critic Rong Chhun at the end of last month at his home in Phnom Penh sends a clear message to the world that Prime Minister Hun Sen and members of the ruling-Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) will never tolerate opposition voices in the country.

According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), Rong Chhun was apprehended without a court warrant. One day after his arrest, Phnom Penh Municipal Court charged the unionist with “incitement to commit a felony” under articles 494 and 495 of Cambodia’s penal code. HRW said Mr Rong Chhun’s charges “appeared to be linked to his recent advocacy for the land rights of villagers living near Cambodia’s border with Vietnam”.

However, “incitement to commit a felony” sounds like a blanket charge used by the authorities to prosecute dissenting voices. And the action has sparked an international outcry. “The European Union should add this outrage to the long list of rights abuses that need to be resolved in negotiations over ‘Everything But Arms’ (EBA) trade preferences,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of HRW.

Under the EBA scheme, Cambodian exports get tariff-free access to the EU market. In February, the EU announced plans to suspend access for about 20% of Cambodian goods, citing democratic and human rights setbacks in recent years. The EU is implementing a “phased approach”, which could see the EBA status fully revoked if Phnom Penh fails to restore democratic rights.

The Cambodian Supreme Court in 2017 dissolved the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) over an alleged coup plot. Since then, opposition figures, including former CNRP leader Kem Sokha, have been arrested over allegations of “incitement to commit a felony, causing social unrest and treason”. In the eyes of the public, the arrest of the outspoken union leader was no different.

On Aug 5, Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) called on Cambodian authorities to end all attacks on those that peacefully voiced their concerns. “Once again in Cambodia, it is the poorest and those in the most vulnerable situations who are hurting the most as a result of the coronavirus pandemic,” said Chamnan Chanruang, a former Thai MP. “Instead of harassing and arresting those speaking up on their behalf, the Cambodian government must focus on providing them with social security.”

Dozens of rights activists, journalists and political opponents have been arrested for raising Covid-19 concerns, the statement said, noting Phnom Penh introduced a state of emergency law with unchecked powers. “He probably thinks that 20% is where it will stop, so he can go ahead and arrest Rong Chhun and many other people without any consequences,” said Brad Adams, executive director of HRW’s Asia division, said.

However, Cambodia is seemingly already looking for ways to offset financial losses caused by a potential full EBA withdrawal. The country is looking to partner with China on a free trade agreement (FTA). “This very huge [Chinese] market access enables Cambodia to diversify its products and markets and reduce over-reliance on a few trading partners, ie, Europe, US and Canada, who traditionally trade with Cambodia on a concessional basis such as EBA,” Commerce Minister Pan Sorasak said.

Apparently, the CPP is willing to risk a full EBA withdrawal as long as it has options. Or maybe Mr Hun Sen and the CPP simply can’t be bothered to uphold Western standards of human rights


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