PHNOM PENH • Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen was defiant yesterday, a day before the European Union would decide whether to end the country's special trade preferences over human rights concerns. He said the nation "will not bow down" to foreign demands.
Cambodia benefits from the EU's Everything But Arms (EBA) trade programme, which allows the world's least-developed countries to export most goods to the EU free of duties.
The EU has threatened to suspend the trade preferences over a crackdown on the opposition, non-governmental organisations and the media by Mr Hun Sen, who has ruled the country of 16 million for more than 35 years.
In a speech yesterday, Mr Hun Sen said he would not bow to the 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," Mr 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," he said.
Mr Hun Sen also alleged that Cambodia had been mired in "countless wars, tragedies they had made for us", but that the country had persevered.
The garment industry is Cambodia's largest employer, generating US$7 billion (S$9.71 billion) for the economy each year. Exports to EU markets were worth US$5.4 billion in 2018, official data showed.
A document posted on the European Parliament's website suggested that the EBA withdrawal from Cambodia would be on "some products", and that rice was not included.
Global clothing and shoe brands, including Adidas, Puma and Levi Strauss, have written to Mr Hun Sen, saying the country's record on labour and human rights threatens to bring down sanctions on the garments industry.
Self-exiled Cambodian opposition figure Sam Rainsy said yesterday that Mr 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," Mr Rainsy told Reuters in an e-mail.
He said that "because of Hun Sen's stubbornness", the Cambodian people will lose on both fronts.
"Let's hope that Hun Sen will open his mind and his heart to start negotiation with the EU to prevent any further commercial sanctions because of his repressive regime," Mr Rainsy said.