Late last month, the government of Sweden made the surprising announcement that it would close its embassy in Phnom Penh at the end of next year, and transfer its diplomatic representation in Cambodia to the Swedish Embassy in Bangkok. Sweden’s decision has prompted many questions, not least, the reason why the government has decided to take this step at this particular juncture.
Sweden’s diplomatic ties with Cambodia date back to 1961, with relations initially handled through the nation’s embassy in Bangkok. Sweden started providing humanitarian and emergency assistance to Cambodia after the overthrow of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime in 1979, mostly channeled through the United Nations. In 1996, the country opened a development cooperation office in the country – a move that coincided with the formulation of Stockholm’s long-term development cooperation strategy in Cambodia.
Then, in 2010, Sweden established its first embassy in Cambodia in 2010. The embassy has since played a key role in facilitating the bilateral development strategy spearheaded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) and the Swedish Foreign Ministry. After nearly a decade, however, the embassy will close its doors and hand its development cooperation duties over to SIDA, which will continue to maintain an office in Phnom Penh.
A day after the announcement, Swedish Ambassador Björn Häggmark stated that the closure of the embassy was “part of Sweden’s continuous adaptation of the Foreign service’s organization abroad to external changes and new service requirements. This is a constant process of change, and involves Sweden sometimes closing embassies.”
But putting the closure down to a “constant process of change” is incomplete and unpersuasive. It is worth noting that the closure of an embassy is not equivalent to the shutting of a shop or company; it also sends a strong political signal to a host country. Of course, the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations authorizes nations to represent a diplomatic mission in a host country through its embassy in a third country, and it is also not the first time that Sweden has closed an embassy abroad. But having and maintaining an embassy and resident diplomat is a strong sign of commitment to the deepening and enhancement of relations with the host country.
The Cambodian government has offered a similarly unpersuasive take on the Swedish government’s decision. Koy Kuong, a spokesman for the Cambodian Foreign Ministry, described the embassy’s closure as a result of the “internal affairs” of Sweden. This, too, is unsatisfactory. Of course, it was an internal affair of Sweden – but what are the exact issues that motivated Sweden to take this step?
Another reason why Sweden’s government might have decided to close its embassy in Cambodia is because of budget pressures brought on by the deadly COVID-19 pandemic this year. It might be the case that facing a coronavirus-induced economic downturn, Sweden has little choice but to cut back the spending that is involved in maintaining and operating embassies overseas. But why does that decision fall on Cambodia, rather than another nation?
One might think that each of the above-mentioned reasons seems valid on their face. However, to understand the decision, one needs to understand that the promotion of democracy has long been high of Sweden’s foreign policy’s agenda. In the particular case of Cambodia, promoting and enhancing democracy and human rights has been at the core of Sweden’s bilateral development assistance since the 1990s. Sweden is ranked as the third-largest bilateral EU donors to Cambodia, behind only France and Germany. From 1997 to 2017, Sweden contributed financial assistance to Cambodia of around 4 billion SEK (around $470 million). It is also worth noting that 75 per cent of development assistance to Cambodia has been directed towards democracy and human rights promotion, including contributions to decentralization, education, and civil society. Swedish government aid mainly provides direct support to government programs, as well as to government-donor relations.
Since 2017, however, Cambodia’s government has engineered a sharp authoritarian turn. That year, a court dissolved the country’s one viable opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), and arrested its president Kem Sokha, amid a repressive crackdown on civil society organizations and the independent media. In response to the banning of the CNRP, Sweden declared that it would review its relations with Cambodia. Subsequently, the Swedish government’s Expert Group for Aid Studies undertook a study to evaluate the long-term impacts of Swedish development assistance on democratic development between 1997 and 2017 – a study that took place in parallel to the EU’s review of Cambodia’s eligibility for Everything But Arms (EBA) trade preferences.
After two years, the expert group finally issued its report in 2019. It found that the long-term Swedish commitment to Cambodia had contributed to the enhancement of democratic development at the local level in the years leading up to the dissolution of the CNRP. To counter recent authoritarian tendencies and advance democracy and human rights in Cambodia, the report recommended that the Swedish government focus its development assistance squarely on the support of civil society.
Surprisingly, nearly a year after the publication of the report, the Swedish government announced its intention to cut its bilateral aid to Cambodia by July 1, 2021. From that point, it will no longer provide development assistance to the Cambodian government and will instead redirect development assistance to civil society organizations focusing on democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. As the Swedish government noted at the time, “The democratic space in Cambodia has been severely restricted in recent years. This has made it difficult to pursue broad and close cooperation.”
Not long after this decision, and the EU’s partial withdrawal of the Everything But Arms (EBA) trade preference from Cambodia in August 2020, Sweden – also an EU member – finally took the next step of closing its embassy in Cambodia by the end of 2021. Reflecting on the deterioration of the human rights situation and political environment since 2017, Sweden’s government had mostly likely grown exhausted with working directly with Cambodia government to advance ends that the government had little real intention of implementing.
These recent decisions by the Swedish government have implications for the Cambodian government. It should work hard to restore and enhance democratic development as well as improve the human rights situation that is seen deteriorating over the last few years. It needs to promote the rule of law and create opportunities for frank political dialogue with relevant stakeholders to address political issues at home and enhance external engagement to support the pursuit of national interests.
Bunna Vann is a Master of Political Science student at Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi, and a recipient of Indian Council for Cultural Relations Scholarship. He obtained a BA in International Relations from the University of Cambodia.