Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said Thursday that “all options are under review” with regard to sanctions against Cambodia if Prime Minister Hun Sen does not end a crackdown on his country’s political opposition, NGOs and the independent media.
In an email to RFA’s Khmer Service, Bishop said that Canberra has “serious concerns with Cambodia’s 2018 national election process” which, according to official results announced Wednesday, led to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) securing all 125 parliamentary seats in the July 29 ballot—widely dismissed as unfree and unfair, following a ban of the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).
“Reflecting these concerns, Australia chose not to send observers to monitor the election,” she said, adding that she had raised the issue directly with her counterpart, Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn in the lead up to the vote.
In addition to orchestrating the dissolution of the CNRP in November and the arrest of its president Kem Sokha two months earlier on charges of plotting to topple the government, Hun Sen also placed severe restrictions on NGOs and the media in the lead up to last month’s election, in what was seen as a bid to ensure his CPP would win and add another five-year term to his 33 years in office.
The Australian foreign minister said that she had met Wednesday with Kem Sokha’s daughter Kem Monovithya, who is the CNRP’s deputy director-general of public affairs, to “discuss Cambodia’s political situation.”
Kem Monovithya has said that she hopes Australia will adopt “tough measures” against Cambodia in response to Hun Sen’s crackdown and follow the examples of the U.S., which has announced visa bans on individuals seen as limiting democracy in the country, and the European Union, which is currently reviewing a preferential trade scheme for Cambodian exports.
When asked whether Canberra would seek similar sanctions, Bishop warned that “all options are under review while we urge the Cambodian government to allow free political debate, without violence and intimidation.”
Bishop reiterated that Australia has called for the release of Kem Sokha in both the United Nations Human Rights Council and in the Australian Senate.
Last month, Bishop’s office issued a statement saying that the July 29 election had “reversed more than 25 years of progress towards democracy in Cambodia.”
“Australia is disappointed that Cambodian people have been unable to freely choose their representatives,” the statement said, adding that Canberra would “continue to urge the Cambodian government to take steps to allow free and open political debate without violence and intimidation.”
Bishop’s warning came a day after the U.S. State Department announced that Washington is expanding visa restrictions on individuals both within and outside of the Cambodian government deemed responsible for what it called “the most anti-democratic actions taken in the run-up to the flawed July 29 election.”
U.S. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said in a briefing on Wednesday that in certain circumstances, the immediate family members of those individuals will also be subject to restrictions, but provided no further details.
“We reiterate our call for the Cambodian government to take tangible actions to promote national reconciliation by allowing independent media and civil society organizations to fulfill their vital roles unhindered and immediately release Kem Sokha and other political prisoners and ending the ban on political opposition,” Nauert said.
The announcement signaled an expansion of visa restrictions put in place in December, which the State Department said at the time were part of a series of “concrete steps” aimed at pressuring Cambodia to “reverse course” that included a decision to withdraw funding for last month’s elections.
“Reinstating the political opposition, releasing Kem Sokha, and allowing civil society and media to resume their constitutionally protected activities … could lead to a lifting of these travel restrictions and increase the potential for Cambodia’s 2018 electoral process to regain legitimacy,” Nauert said at the time, in a statement accompanying the announcement.
CPP spokesperson Sok Ey San dismissed the expanded visa restrictions during a press conference following the official announcement of Cambodia’s election results on Wednesday, saying they would not affect the ruling party.
“We won’t want to travel to the U.S., even if they [the government] pay our airfares,” he said.
CPP spokesperson Suos Yara also warned the U.S. and the EU that they risk losing an important economic partner in Cambodia, where both benefit from “cheap labor.”
“Threats of imposing sanctions or ending a tariff-free scheme are only part of campaigning by certain political parties in the West,” he said.
“But if the U.S. imposes sanctions on us, not only will Cambodia lose benefits, but the U.S. will as well. Americans won’t be able to buy cheaper clothes [produced in] Cambodia.”
With regard to the EU’s consideration of dropping its preferential trade scheme, Suos Yara said it would not affect Cambodia, which he said “is losing its tax-free status anyway, because it has become a lower-middle income country.”
Suos Yara appeared to be referring to a World Bank assessment which elevated Cambodia from “low income” to “lower-middle income” status based on its Gross National Income (GNI) per capita of U.S. $1,070 during 2015.
The World Bank had just introduced its new classification system based on GNI—which is closely correlated with other, nonmonetary measures of the quality of life—instead of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and described countries with a GNI per capita of between U.S. $1,026 and $4,035 as “lower-middle income.”
But while the World Bank said in its assessment that as a lower-middle income country, Cambodia was still eligible to borrow from the International Development Association (IDA) fund for the poorest nations, the group did not specify whether the country was at risk of losing any kind of “tax-free status.”
According to the European Commission, the EU ranked as the second biggest trade partner of Cambodia in 2017, importing goods worth 5 billion euros (U.S. $5.8 billion) from the country. Key EU imports from Cambodia include textiles, footwear and agricultural products.
The U.S. imported U.S. $3.1 billion worth of goods from Cambodia in 2017, up from U.S. $2.8 billion the year before.