A Cambodian opposition MP and advocate of sanctions against the one-party state has been charged under the catch-all term of incitement after the dictatorial prime minister, Hun Sen, threatened to renew last year’s political crackdown if the European Union withdrew trade benefits.
The EU reinstated “normal” customs duty on rice imports from Cambodia meaning that from January 18, it will pay 175 euros per tonne, to be reduced progressively over three years.
Kong Mas, a member of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which was officially disbanded by the government last year, was charged with incitement and “insulting”, said his lawyer Sam Sokong.
Incitement, has been used as broad term to jail critics, carries a prison sentence of up to two years.
The EU has begun the process of withdrawing its Everything But Arms (EBA) agreement with Cambodia, which allowed it to export goods to the bloc under reduced tariffs.
Rice imports from Cambodia and Myanmar, which both suffer from poor human rights records, rose from 9,000 tonnes in 2012 to 360,000 tonnes in 2017, causing a collapse in rice prices for Southern European producers from Portugal to Bulgaria.
The EBA deal requires human rights obligations and it has been in peril since the CNRP was dissolved and its leader arrested for treason ahead of last year’s rubber-stamp general election.
On Sunday, Hun Sen began a four-day visit to his long-term ally, China, as relations with Brussels cooled.
Kong Mas posted on Facebook that he welcomed tariffs on Cambodian rice exports, calling the measures the “first round” of action against Hun Sen’s rule.
He said he hoped sanctions would lead to protests that would force the regime to address the political situation.
But Hun Sen is likely to find many customers for Cambodian rice in China, which is the world’s largest rice importer, with US$1.8 billion worth of imports in 2017.
Since the Cambodian election in July last year, the government’s crackdown has relaxed and many political prisoners have been released or pardoned.
“Please don’t forget that if you sanction me, it equally means that [Europe will] beat the opposition in Cambodia to death,” Hun Sen warned the EU during a recent speech. He also told his critics to be ready to escape if the EBA was removed, saying “I won’t forgive them.”
CNRP founder Sam Rainsy said Hun Sen’s threats showed he had “lost his mind”.
“If he wants to avoid those sanctions because he cares about the well-being of the Cambodian people, he just has to reverse his repressive policies and start negotiations with the European Union in order to restore democracy in Cambodia,” the former opposition leader said.
A CNRP rally in Phnom Penh. Hun Sen has crushed the opposition since it began to make inroads into his parliamentary majority. Picture credit: Wikimedia