Cambodia PM says country 'will not bow down' a day before EU trade decision

PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen was defiant on Tuesday, a day before the European Union is to decide whether to end the country’s special trade preferences over human rights concerns, saying the nation “will not bow down” to foreign demands.

FILE PHOTO: Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen attends a celebrations marking the 66th anniversary of the country's independence from France, in central Phnom Penh, Cambodia, November 9, 2019. REUTERS/Samrang Pring/File Photo

Cambodia benefits from the EU’s “Everything But Arms” (EBA) trade program, which allows the world’s least-developed countries to export most goods to the European Union free of duties.

The European Union has threatened to suspend the trade preferences over a crackdown on the opposition, NGOs and the media by Hun Sen, who has ruled the country of 16 million for more than 35 years.

A document posted on European Parliament’s website suggests that any EBA withdrawal from Cambodia would be partial, saying “some products” would be covered and rice was not included. The official announcement is due on Wednesday.

In a speech on Tuesday, Hun Sen said he wouldn’t bow to respond to EU’s demands.

“Therefore, we call on the Cambodian people to stand up to protect Cambodia’s independence, sovereignty and peace. Let’s not bow down to anyone, we must work hard to live,” Hun Sen said.

“We want to be friends and partners with all countries around the world but if they do not understand us and want to force us, we don’t agree,” Hun Sen said.

The garment industry is Cambodia’s largest employer, generating $7 billion for the economy each year. Exports to EU markets were worth $5.4 billion in 2018, according to official data.

Clothing company H&M Group said withdrawal of the EBA for Cambodian-made garments would not cause it to stop sourcing from Cambodia but it would hurt production there.

“We will continue to produce in Cambodia, but a lack of adequate initiatives developing the Cambodian textile industry, and a withdrawal of the EBA privileges, will have a negative impact on our production in the country,” H&M press officer Ulrika Isaksson said in an email.

Self-exiled Cambodian opposition figure Sam Rainsy said on Tuesday that Hun Sen should have complied with the EU’s demands, aimed at restoring fundamental freedoms in Cambodia.

“Even a partial suspension of the EBA scheme is a sad development because it will still affect Cambodian workers’ jobs and our country’s economy at least to a certain degree and because such a development could have been avoided,” Sam Rainsy told Reuters in an email.

Reporting by Prak Chan Thul; Editing by Kay Johnson, Gerry Doyle and Giles Elgood