Phnom Penh (FN), Feb. 21 - In the last couple of days, I have heard a lot of debates among Cambodian politicians, academicians, and ordinary citizens regarding the withdrawal from Cambodia the European Union’s Everything But Arms preferential scheme. Some Cambodian people made it the topic to criticize and attack the Cambodian government led by Prime Minister Hun Sen - and they seemed to use EBA threat as a psychological war to frighten the Cambodian people to serve their political agenda. Some other people tried to explain and put the blame on Cambodia’s opposition as the ‘root cause’ that led to the potential withdrawal of EBA from Cambodia. A few others blamed and attacked the EU that suddenly threatened to suspend EBA scheme from Cambodia to serve their hidden political agenda.

Generally speaking, all problems have their ‘causes’, ‘effects’ and ‘solutions’. Like other problems, EBA issue cannot avoid being linked more or less with some superpowers’ political agenda.

However, as a Cambodian who has no affiliations with any political tendency, I strongly believe that Cambodia meets the criteria to retain EBA if we set aside our internal political agenda and see EBA as an asset for the nation, workers and farmers; and join hands in hands with each other to maintain it.

We should bear in mind that, to some extent, Cambodia greatly benefits from the EBA, since it helps Cambodian products enter EU markets without taxes and unlimited quotas. Approximately US$600 million benefited through EBA is injected into our national economy and household economy directly or indirectly.

Meanwhile, the EU also gets advantages from the EBA, as the EU citizens are able to purchase good products at a reasonable price thanks to EBA. Hence, the suspension of EBA would mean that the EU citizens would have to buy these same goods at a higher price. That’s an issue. Like we all know, people from many EU countries are not so happy with their respective governments on many issues. A case in point is in France, the yellow vest protestors have gone and continued to go down to the streets for many months, as their government wanted to impose higher tax. And in some other countries, the situation is not far different because their citizens have been fed up with their lives due to high inflation, which challenges their livelihood. This is not to mention Brexit which is plaguing the EU under the effects of trade war.

In such situation, the EU surely does not want to put more pressure and burden on their citizens. Hence, it is high probable that the EU would not suspend the EBA from Cambodia.

Now, if we look at Cambodia, we are qualified enough to retain EBA.

1.  Cambodia has made huge improvements on labor rights. Working conditions in garment and footwear factories have been improved continuously and the minimum wage has increased annually. Obviously, the 2019 minimum wage is US$182, a considerably high rate compared to many countries. Besides, garment workers are entitled to other benefits, including the benefits from National Social Security Fund. Pregnant workers have been paid special attention by the government’s top leadership. The International Labor Organization (ILO) which has close collaboration with the government is a witness who could confirm the improvements in Cambodia’s working conditions.

2.  Moreover, Cambodia has a number of trade unions and an arbitrary council to solve labor disputes.

3.  Cambodia has also paid great attention to solving land disputes. We can see the sharp decline in number of land dispute cases.

4.  Cambodia is safer and more peaceful compared to many countries in the region and in the world. The Cambodian people could live happily and their living standards have been gradually improving while the country sees spectacular development in most of the important sectors. This is a clear indication that Cambodia has no serious human right abuses, except for a very few specific cases. Better working conditions, improvement of living standards, and increase in workers’ minimum wage are all important parts of the respect of human rights.

5.  Actually, the EU always raises the case of former CNRP dissolution as the ‘cause’ of decline in Cambodia’s democracy. However, peace, vibrant economic activities, and decrease of social issue are proven signs that the dissolution is a separate case which does not affect the country’s general process and the living conditions of our people in the country.

The amendment of Political Party Law which paved the way for 118 former politicians - who were imposed by a 5-year ban from politics - to rehabilitate its political rights is another good sign of return of Cambodia’s democracy. Likewise, the creation of Supreme Council for Consultation or the Government Forum with Civil society and the Government-Private Sector Forum constitute another positive sign of democratic improvement in Cambodia.

To sum up, Cambodia has all favorable conditions for all types of economy, investment, and trade activities. Cambodia has achieved a steady economic growth and has surpassed the least developing countries with low income and is in the process of becoming a Lower Middle Income Country.

Phnom Penh Government has set goal to make Cambodia a High Middle Income Country by 2030 and a High Income Country by 2050. The nation’s education sector has been improved while tourism flourish.

These are hard evidences which indicate that Cambodia has been developing in all fronts. So, What would be the reasons for EU to suspend EBA before the deadline? I see no reasons at all. But all these require the government to work more actively and wisely in their negotiations with the EU for the upcoming one year.

Based on this rational, I personally come up with the conclusion that EBA trade scheme will continue to be provided to Cambodia until the country’s economy reaches an over-qualified level. Hence, what are the reasons for Khmer to duel Khmer over EBA? Instead, all Khmer people should work hand in hand to maintain EBA.

I have given some suggestions to my friends who are civil servants that what the Phnom Penh government should do is to set up a task force and should be in better and well-prepared position to talk and negotiate with the EU.

At the same time, the opposition group which is frightening the Cambodian people over EBA should stop such activities, as the chance of EBA withdrawal from Cambodia is slim. If the opposition presses harder over it and at last, the EU decides to continue providing EBA to Cambodia, they will surely lose their popularity among the public and supporters.

As a Cambodian, I want to see the Cambodian politicians know how to separate between national and political interests, meaning that they should sit together and settle their differences internally between Khmer and Khmer. Please do not use the national interest as a hostage for political gain, for it will not in any ways benefit the nation.
Again, I am still optimistic that the EBA preferential scheme will still be available for Cambodia, since the kingdom meets all criteria to maintain it.

Consequently, the Cambodian people should be calm, and stop arguing with each other. They should not be anxious about it too. What we should do is to work together to maintain it. “EBA is not a life-death condition for Cambodia, but it is only a value-added that Cambodia could benefit from it”.

By: Professor in Social Studies and Anthropology