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(September 25, 2018) US, EU must tread carefully over Cambodia - Kavi Chongkittavorn

 www.bangkokpost.com/opinion/opinion/1546166/us-eu-must-tread-carefully-over-cambodia

The US and EU must not commit the same mistakes in Cambodia that they made in Thailand. Efforts to pressure strongman Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen to follow their suggested paths will not work. Worse still, they could have serious adverse effects, as the country's domestic and external conditions are very different and unique.

If and when Cambodia's long-standing peace and prosperity has been shattered, the well-being of Southeast Asia will be jeopardised, allowing external forces to intervene. In engaging Cambodia, a long-haul perspective and strategic patience are required.

Since the recent election, Hun Sen has fully consolidated his power with total control of the National Assembly. Western democracies have repeatedly condemned the electoral outcome and the way he treated opposition parties, limited the political space and gagged the media. Foreign and local human rights campaigners have released a long list of rights violations and media restrictions, not to mention other limits on freedom of expression.

Hun Sen has freed political prisoners including Kem Sokha, the opposition leader of the National Rescue Party, who was released on bail but remains under house arrest.

To make sure that Hun Sen will not get away scot-free, Washington has upped the ante on the region's longest-reigning prime minister, saying that anything short of allowing banned opposition leaders and members to resume their roles is not acceptable. US diplomats in Phnom Penh have adopted a very stern position against Hun Sen, in private threatening to impose targeted sanctions against key people in the government responsible for human rights violations.

Newly appointed US ambassador to Cambodia Patrick Murphy, who has yet to arrive, will have a tough job to handle Cambodia in the foreseeable future. When he served in Thailand as deputy chief of mission and chargé d'affaires from 2013-2016, his strong views on human rights and democracy raised the eyebrows of Thai officials.

The view of Washington is clear and strong: Cambodia is selling out to the Chinese. A case in point is Chinese companies investing in Sihanoukville. American lawmakers want to see the demise of Hun Sen and his cronies at all costs; otherwise the country of 15.3 million will be under China's influence and control. They also fear that Sihanoukville's strategic location and port facilities could have military applications.

In the near future, it is highly likely that if the current situation prevails, Washington will tighten the screws by targeting Hun Sen's family members and associates.

In a similar vein, the EU has demanded that the Cambodian government reopen talks with the opposition party and drop all charges against its members as well as human rights campaigners. "We want to see that the 118 opposition party officials have political rights," Federica Mogherini, EU high representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, said in a statement.

Brussels' big threat against Hun Sen to cut off tariff-free privileges for all Cambodian exports, known as Everything But Arms (EBA), is a work in progress. The EU is weighing the decision carefully, knowing full well that the lifting of the EBA would immediately impact the country's economic performance, especially the textile and footwear industries, as well as harming the lives of more than 800,000 factory workers and beyond.

In past years, Cambodia has been trying to adopt structural reform so that its economy does not depend too much on the export of clothing. In 2000, Cambodia's clothing exports accounted for 87.6% of all its exports worth US$1.1 billion. Last year, clothing represented just 62.6% of the country's total exports of US$11 billion, with footwear, rubber and rice catching up. The country needs diversification and structural transformation quickly to take advantage of ongoing economic growth.

Like the US, the EU fears that Cambodia will increasingly depend on China, its No.1 aid donor as well as biggest investor. Therefore, they must not push the region's strongman into a corner. Hun Sen knows exactly what he is doing.

A similar tactic was used by the US as well as the EU vis-à-vis Thailand's military coup in May 2014. They strongly condemned the coup and froze contact and diplomatic channels with Bangkok, citing the rule of law, democratic backsliding and human rights violations as justification. That was fine, but their bilateral relations with Thailand have deteriorated over time, impacting existing cooperation projects and derailing future plans.

The problem was that both the US and EU predicted erroneously that the May coup in Thailand would last just a year or 18 months at most, judging by the country's numerous previous coups, before a general election. However, this military administration has governed well over the past four-and-a-half years. This extended period has enabled other countries to make headway in forging ties with Thailand.

Thailand's normal diplomatic channels were shut down with the US and EU. Not until the second half of 2017 did the US and EU slowly change their attitude and begin to reconnect with the Thai government. By that time, Thailand had jump-started its ties with other major powers by leaps and bounds.

After 33 years in power, Hun Sen wants to put in place the next generation of leaders. Even though, at this point, there is no one who seems likely to emerge as his successor, except his sons, either Hun Many or Hun Manet, it does not mean that it is a done deal. He still has to heed his comrades-in-arms who fought alongside him all these years. Failure to recognise their contributions would be fatal and could wreck the unity of the ruling Cambodian People's Party.

At this juncture, Hun Sen understands his dilemma and knows full well that the EU could further delay taking action for two reasons. Both France and Germany think that Hun Sen should be given a second chance to improve human rights and the country's democratic atmosphere. As a mercurial leader, Hun Sen remains persuasive and confident in his actions and policies. Indeed, Japan's diplomatic action is to be commended. As Cambodia's second-biggest donor, Tokyo has not shunned Hun Sen. Indeed, he is scheduled to visit Japan to meet up with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

It is imperative to keep the lines of communication open between Hun Sen and the international community to avoid any "unintended consequences". Pressure in private meetings among leaders is more useful than megaphone diplomacy.


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