Hun Sen’s letter called for the creation of a working group with member from both countries, with the aim of discussing ways to improve bilateral relations.PHNOM PENH —
Prime Minister Hun Sen on Wednesday responded to a letter sent by President Donald Trump last week by saying he was keen to improve bilateral relations and hoped to move past the “dark chapters” of their shared history.
The prime minister wrote his own letter, dated November 26, 2019, in response to a letter sent by President Trump and delivered by U.S. Ambassador W Patrick Murphy last week. In that letter, Trump said the U.S. was looking to restore bilateral relations and was not pushing for a regime change.
Hun Sen said he agreed with Trump that their bilateral relations had been through “ups and downs” and that the two countries should not be held back by their past issues.
“I am of the view that we should not become hostage of a few dark chapters of our own history,” Hun Sen writes in the letter. “There are so many other beautiful chapters that are worth nourishing for the greater good of both of our countries and people.”
The Cambodian government has routinely accused the United States of orchestrating an alleged color revolution to overthrow the government. It used this so-called revolution narrative to dissolve the opposition party in 2017, jail opposition leader Kem Sokha, and crackdown on NGOs and independent media organizations.
Hun Sen’s letter called for the creation of a working group with member from both countries, with the aim of discussing ways to improve bilateral relations.
European Union pressure is working, and revoking trade preferences might allow Cambodians to escape dynastic rule.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen at the Future of Asia Conference, Tokyo, 30 May 2019 (Photo: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images) Published 26 Nov 2019 12:30
To the casual observer, it may appear that Cambodian strongman Hun Sen is letting up, undoing some recent repression. This month, Hun Sen released Kem Sokha, the founder and co-leader of the main opposition party, after more than two years of house arrest, days later also ordering the release of more than 70 opposition activists arrested for “plotting to overthrow the government”.
These moderate relaxations are a direct response to European Union pressure, despite ruling party rhetoric suggesting the opposite. Since February 2019, the EU, citing “a deterioration of democracy [and] respect for human rights”, has been moving towards revoking Cambodia’s membership in the Everything But Arms (EBA) trade scheme, which allows the duty-free export of certain goods – textiles, footwear, and agricultural products – to Europe. The bloc will issue its final decision in February 2020. Cambodia, if removed, will experience what one analysis described as “a decline that could send the sector into free-fall and impact on the livelihoods of millions of Cambodians.” Meanwhile, the US Senate is considering a bill that would revoke Cambodia’s membership in Washington’s own preferential trade scheme.
Elders generally credit Hun Sen with delivering Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge period, but young people do not feel as if they owe him anything, instead blaming him for the state of the economy, along with lagging development and corruption.
Hun Sen is a skilled maneuverer, doing just enough over the years to satisfy the West, which in turn helps prop up Cambodia’s economy, imbuing him with some much-needed legitimacy. He has a long history of making short-term concessions, only to roll them back soon after, rather than implement any real change. This is perhaps best evidenced by his cynical treatment of Sokha, who despite being “free” is still banned from politics, and set to be put on trial for treason.
Western efforts have yet to bring about the peaceful, inclusive, and democratic Cambodia promised by the 1991 Paris Peace Accords. The US and Europe have struggled to counter Hun Sen effectively, instead seeking his cooperation on issues of mutual concern, hoping to keep Cambodia at least vaguely in the Western sphere of influence. But now, with Cambodia a codified one-party state deeply in China’s pocket – and Hun Sen lashing out against the EU – the West needs a new future-focused strategy, one that holds the Cambodian government accountable for human rights violations and other breaches. As a first step, Brussels and Washington should revoke their respective preferential trade statuses for Cambodia.
Hun Sen rival faces trial even as EU threatens Cambodia sanctions
Op-Ed: Nekei Asean Review, Kem Sokha will be tried for treason despite being released from house arrest
SHAUN TURTON, Contributing Writer NOVEMBER 19, 2019 14:35 JST
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and the European Union flag. The EU last week sent Cambodia its preliminary report on whether to suspend the country from special trade privileges over its human rights record. (Nikkei Montage/ Source photo by Reuters)
PHNOM PENH — Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen is pressing ahead with a treason case against a leading opposition figure who has just been released from house arrest, despite the nation facing European Union trade sanctions over its human rights record.
Hun Sen said on Monday that charges against Kem Sokha would not be dropped as demanded by the EU, Cambodia’s biggest export destination. “This case doesn’t require one or two days, or one month or two months, it will take a long time,” the strongman leader said.
Sokha was arrested in 2017 and faces up to 15 years in prison for what the government has claimed were plans for a U.S.-backed coup. His arrest and the subsequent Supreme Court ruling that dissolved his main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), saw Hun Sen’s ruling party capture every parliamentary seat in last year’s national election.
The crackdown, which also targeted civil society and media outlets, sparked an EU review of the country’s special trade privileges under the Everything But Arms scheme (EBA).
Losing the preference, which grants duty and quota free access to the bloc for all exports except weapons and ammunition, could be disastrous for the country’s 750,000-worker strong apparel and footwear sector, which generated more than $8 billion in exports last year.
The EU last week sent Cambodia its preliminary report on whether to suspend the country from the initiative, which is conditional on countries abiding by human and labor rights set out by the United Nations.
Its findings were not made public but a leaked copy, obtained by Radio Free Asia, reportedly concluded Cambodia had not taken enough steps to address “severe and systematic” violations of its principles.
In a statement, Cambodia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry claimed RFA’s coverage of the report was “not accurate” but did not provide any details from the document to contradict the outlet’s story. It said the government would review the report and submit “an appropriate response that will reflect updates of recent developments.”
In a sign of the mounting pressure, authorities last week relaxed house arrest conditions for Sokha, who can now travel in Cambodia but cannot leave the country or participate in political activities. The court also officially closed the case’s more than two-year investigation period.
In announcing the charges would not be dropped on Monday, Hun Sen claimed the court process was “independent,” an assertion at odds with the track record of Cambodia’s politically compliant judiciary.
Just last week, Hun Sen ordered the release on bail of more than 70 opposition activists arrested for supporting failed plans by self-exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy to return to Cambodia and lead an uprising.
Following a familiar playbook, the moves appeared an effort to soften the oppression of opponents. The government also announced tentative steps to allowing independent media to once again purchase airtime on local radio stations.
Sebastian Strangio, author of “Hun Sen’s Cambodia,” said using prisoners as “bargaining chips” was a well established practice by the strongman over his 30 years in power.
“These types of concessions have long been part of the political game,” he said.
“The pattern has concealed a steady drift towards more and more control in Hun Sen and the CPP’s hands,” Strangio said. “The EU had to threaten half a billion dollars estimated worth of economic impacts on Cambodia in order to get Hun Sen to back down on this and it’s taken a plus to get this concession out of him.”
But whether Hun Sen’s apparent concessions will sway the EU remains to be seen. While Sokha’s improved conditions were welcomed, the move also appeared a strategic ploy to engender a split between the opposition leader and his CNRP co-founder, Sam Rainsy.
“The decision has been made to play Kem Sokha against Sam Rainsy, to dilute, diminish or marginalize Sam Rainsy at the time his status has been rising,” longtime Cambodian political commentator Lao Mong Hay told the Nikkei Asian Review. “It’s too late and too little,” he said of the concessions.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, right, and his Cambodian counterpart Hun Sen address a press conference together in Bangkok in December 2015 . (Photo by Thiti Wannamontha)
Cambodia may avoid trade sanctions from the EU and US if its government has learnt the art of faking a return to democracy and rule of law from Thailand, which has done its neighbour a huge favour by barring entry to its exiled opposition leaders.
In fact, Thailand is the only “democratic” country in the region that bowed to the request of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government.
Indonesia and Malaysia ignored the demand not to let Cambodian dissidents land, even letting some enter and stay. But that does not seem to have made Thailand a bad guy in the eyes of the West.
“I also came to power through elections,” Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, the 2014 coup-maker, boasted to locals during his recent trip to Ratchaburi province.
Without a doubt, his government must have delivered the same message to western nations, who have bought it — or perhaps faked their acceptance — out of relief that the political mess in Thailand seems back to tolerable levels.
That indicates Prime Minister Hun Sen could have softened his crackdown on the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which has been so ruthless and rigorous that the West has threatened penalties over the past few years.