Analyst: EU has lost all credibility with the Cambodian authorities

Dr. Raoul-Marc Jennar

The EU’s withdrawal of trade perks that have given Cambodia quota- and tariff-free access to the bloc’s single market is seen as “eminently political” in the South-East Asian nation and is unlikely to bring about a change in the country, Raoul M. Jennar  told EURACTIV.

Dr Raoul M. Jennar, PhD in political science, has been involved in Cambodia for more than 30 years. He has worked as a consultant to NGOs, the UN, UNESCO, the European Union, and to the Cambodian government on border issues.

As a political analyst who lives in Phnom Penh, do you think the partial withdrawal of Everything But Arms trade preferences will achieve the EU’s goal of improving, what it said, is a concerning human rights situation?

No. I don’t think so. First, because, generally speaking, sanctions applied for political reasons do not work. And EU sanctions are seen as eminently political. Cambodian authorities see themselves as victims of EU double standards policy. The EU says there is no political pluralism in Cambodia, but it has preferential trade agreements with countries where the political system is based on a single party.

The EU denounces alleged human rights violations in Cambodia but treats gently a country where the UN has declared that there have been recently crimes against humanity and genocide. The EU claims to defend human rights but supports Cambodian politicians who have built their popularity on an exacerbated racist nationalism that would be unanimously condemned in Europe. When EU senior officials who prepared the decisions on EBA belong to the same international political organisation of those politicians who behave against the law, EU decisions are politically motivated. For these reasons, the EU has lost all credibility with the Cambodian authorities.

On the issue of human rights, it is regrettable that the EU does not take into account all the realities of a country where the recent past still weighs heavily and where there is no national consensus between majority and opposition on essential questions such as the territorial borders of the country after colonisation, the origins of the 18 March 1970 coup that plunged the country in the tragic decade 1970-79, the crimes committed by the Polpotism (the opposition made negations statements), the role of Vietnam in the liberation of the country in 1979, the true pacification of the country in 1998 and the status of neutrality. Whenever the opposition escalates tensions over these issues to the point of creating a climate of civil war, the government is compelled to respond and to implement the law. Peace inside and outside, with neighbouring countries, is at stake. And there is no development without peace.

What are the Cambodian government’s expectations concerning the socio-economic impact of the EBA withdrawal?

Before the COVID-19 crisis, the government was concerned to avoid the impact of the partial withdrawal of EBA on the hundreds of thousands of jobs – especially women – caused by the European decision. Considerable efforts have been made to diversify the markets for Cambodian exports. Slowly, it became clear that this withdrawal of EBA preferences would not affect the Cambodian economy. Despite the EU taxation on Cambodian rice, rice exports to the EU have increased in 2020.

This EBA sanction is above all a serious political injustice inflicted by a Europe that, already in the past, was depriving genocide survivors for eleven years of the right to food, health, education, housing, development and even peace. And today they claim to defend fundamental human rights! For most of the Cambodians who faced the eleven years of isolation after the fall of the Pol Pot regime, when Europe speaks about human rights, it is pure hypocrisy.

What are the geopolitical consequences of the EBA withdrawal; will it bring Cambodia closer to China? 

Cambodia wants above all to remain a neutral and non-aligned country, as prescribed in its Constitution. It actively participates in multiple multilateral and regional institutions. But it intends that its national sovereignty be respected. It refuses to be told its choices. It refuses to side with a camp in international rivalries exacerbated by those who reject multilateralism.

Cambodia has no enemies. It would like to have only friends. But it has to admit that some are only friendly if we obey them. Unfortunately, this is a characteristic common to Western countries. So Cambodia is happy to receive aid from those who have contributed to its reconstruction and who, today, play an important role in its development without interfering in its internal political life.

The Europeans, who, however, have known since 1945 what it means to be subject to the American zone of influence, pretend to ignore that Southeast Asia is in an area where two great powers exert their influence: China and Japan. What could be more normal than that Cambodia maintains close relations with these two countries, as well as with South Korea? These three countries are the engines of development in this part of the world, which includes Cambodia.

We come from a situation where we had been brought back to the Stone Age, as the head of the United Nations mission had observed in 1992-1993. How, given this immense gap, could we, to please the USA and the EU, neglect the massive aid that is brought to us by China without condition? What is always a reason for me to be surprised is how the history repeats itself. Already in the fifties and the sixties of the past century, the then Head of State Prince Norodom Sihanouk was strongly criticized to receive aids from China by the USA that used to impose conditions for their aid.

The EU has sought to increase its engagement in Southeast Asia. How has the pandemic affected the bloc’s diplomacy in the region?

It was the EU that, years ago, refused a free trade treaty with ASEAN, preferring separate treaties with each of the Southeast Asian states, an approach where its influence is greater than in a block-to-block negotiation. There is no doubt that the coronavirus pandemic is holding back negotiations.

I understand that the EU wants to help ASEAN countries coordinate their actions against the virus. As the EU seeks unity of action among member states in the fight against COVID-19, ASEAN is doing the same. If the EU succeeds in strengthening the unity of the ASEAN member states in this fight when it has difficulty in doing so within itself, Cambodia will welcome it.

What has been Cambodia’s secret to the relatively small number of COVID-19 infections? What do you think Europe can learn from Cambodia in battling the virus? 

There is no secret in Cambodia’s success in its fight against COVID-19. There are several factors that explain this success.  First, a cultural factor. As with many Asian peoples, there is a practice of wearing a mask that pre-existed the pandemic. Pollution has become such in urban centres that it is a healthy precaution. Then, unlike Western countries, Cambodia took the news from China seriously as soon as it was released. Very quickly an intense effort to inform the population was launched to learn all the precautionary measures: wear a mask, wash their hands, keep a physical distance.

The government believed, with good reasons that by isolating the country as quickly as possible would be the best way to avoid a national cluster of the epidemic. The borders were closed and almost all air links were suspended. People entering the country have been systematically tested. The control was and is still very strict. Schools, entertainments and casinos have been closed and public transport has been stopped.

Everything has been done to limit travel within the country as much as possible, in particular around the Khmer New Year in April that sees millions of Cambodians moving to the countryside. The result of this policy is spectacular: as of 11 October, since March, in a country of 16 million inhabitants, only 283 cases have been recorded, of which 277 have been cured so far. There were no deaths. Thousands of tests have been carried out under the supervision of the Pasteur Institute in Cambodia. There is no national cluster: all cases are either foreigners or Cambodians returning from abroad.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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