On June 9, the European Parliament passed a resolution expressing “deep concerns about the worsening climate for opposition politicians and human rights activists in Cambodia.” Meanwhile, 41 international NGOs signed a letter urging the Cambodian government to stop the harassment of groups working for people’s rights. Cambodian authorities were quick to dismiss these criticisms.
The European Union resolution cited the “escalation of politically motivated charges and judicial harassment of human rights defenders and activists” in Cambodia. Aside from filing several criminal charges against some Members of the Parliament, the Cambodian government also detained four NGO members for allegedly bribing a witness in a sexual scandal case involving an opposition leader.
This legal offensive is seen by many as a systematic crackdown of the opposition by the ruling party, which has been in power in the past three decades.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation immediately issued a statement describing the EU resolution as a document “based on so many false accounts.”
The Ministry insisted that the government adheres to due process in prosecuting individuals accused of violating the law. It even asserted that many of Cambodia’s laws and legal actions are patterned after the European Union.
“We urge against employing a selective approach to dealing with human rights issues or the politicization of some of the cases that are being addressed with ‘double standards’ when one can equally observe such common practices under the rule of law being upheld in European nations,” said an excerpt from the statement of the ministry.
The European Union resolution also mentioned that the European Union is Cambodia’s largest partner in terms of development assistance and that the country is “highly dependent” on foreign aid. Perceiving this as a veiled threat to reduce aid to Cambodia, Prime Minister Hun Sen challenged the European Union to stop giving funds to his country. But he also warned that the first to suffer will be NGO workers who are dependent on foreign grants.
“Don’t scare me. Don’t threaten me. Don’t threaten Cambodia by cutting off aid,” Hun Sen said during a graduation speech at the Royal University of Phnom Penh.
He continued by comparing the European Union to another big source of Cambodia’s foreign aid: China.
“I have never been afraid of China, and China has never made a threat to Cambodia and has never ordered Cambodia to do something. I am just saying that the other [donors] should not make threats to Cambodia,” Hun Sen said.
Hun Sen appears to be downplaying the possible negative social and economic impact if the European Union will stop sending development assistance to Cambodia. But he must check his facts first because based on official government data, Cambodia received $2.03 billion in aid grants from international donors between 2013 and 2015. More than $639 million worth of infrastructure projects and calamity assistance were implemented through these foreign pledges. In fact, the European Union resolution claimed that it has already allocated €410 million between 2014 and 2020 to Cambodia as part of its prior commitment to help in the country’s development.
Hun Sen’s angry remarks aimed at the European Union didn’t stop several top diplomats from visiting Kem Sokha, the deputy opposition leader who is staying in the party headquarters after the police tried several times to arrest him. In response, some have asked: Are the visits merely coincidental or are they in response to the intransigence of Hun Sen?
If Hun Sen has not yet reacted to the highly publicized visits of some diplomats to the headquarters of the opposition, it is probably because he has his hands full dissing critics and analysts who are accusing Cambodia of sabotaging the release of a statement of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations directed against the land reclamation activities of China in the South China Sea.
Hun Sen denied that Cambodia blocked the statement in order to defend China. “Cambodia is independent. Cambodia is not a puppet. Cambodia just wants justice,” he said.
In the past month, Cambodia received a lot of flak for its human rights record and its perceived pro-China policy at the expense of ASEAN unity. While Cambodia is right to assert that its sovereignty as an independent nation must be respected, it also has the obligation to take note of the legitimate concerns raised by various institutions about some of its policies. At the minimum, it has to address these issues and assure the international community that the government is still committed to protect human rights, democracy, and rule of law.