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Civil Society Groups Ask Sweden to “Not Abandon” Cambodia Amid Democratic Decline

FILE PHOTO - Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Sar Kheng and Swedish Minister of the Interior Anders Ygeman smile after signing a cooperation agreement between the two countries in Stockholm, Sweden, May 25, 2015. (REUTERS)

More than 110 civil society organizations have urged the Swedish government to reverse a decision in November to move its embassy to Thailand, an action observer said at the time was linked to Cambodia’s democratic backslide.

116 local groups penned a letter to Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde asking her to “not abandon” the work done by Sweden to advance “Cambodia’s democratic governance and rule of law.”

“This was a necessary pre-condition to assist the Cambodian people to progress to where we are today – we are grateful for your support,” the letter reads.

The letter was signed by local and international NGOs, associations, worker unions, and some international groups and donors.

In late November, the Swedish government announced the planned closure of its embassy in Phnom Penh, a move some observers said was linked to the Scandinavian country’s decision in June to cease bilateral aid on account of Cambodia’s failing human rights situation.

The Swedish Foreign Ministry said the embassy would be closed at the end of 2021 and its diplomatic presence in Bangkok would be given additional responsibility for Cambodia. It maintained that the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency will continue its work in the country.

Sweden did not give any specific reasons for the decision, only to say that their Foreign Ministry was adapting to “external changes and new monitoring and service requirements,” and that there would be “new ways” to continue the bilateral engagement.

The letter also pointed to Sweden’s value-driven approach, which the groups said had garnered the Scandinavian country “tremendous soft power.”

Ou Virak, the president of the Future Forum think tank, said the decision to close the embassy was taken after political calculations, which were yet to be revealed by the Swedish government.

“In our experience, when a country closes their embassy and moves to another country, the relation between countries will become less and less and then it becomes even more silent,” he said.

He said the situation could be salvaged if both the Cambodian and Swedish governments talked about issues of concern, such as human rights and democracy.

Sweden has been a vocal critic of the government’s ongoing crackdown since 2017, including the dissolution of the primary opposition party, forced closure of independent news organizations, and the targeting of non-governmental organizations.

Solinn Lim, country director for Oxfam in Cambodia, said Sweden had played an important role in contributing to Cambodia’s social and democratic development. She hoped that Sweden would be “patient” for the benefit of the Cambodian people.

“I hope that Sweden will not abandon the long path that they have contributed to in development with Cambodians,” she said. “It is a great loss for Cambodia without the presence of the Swedish embassy.”

In brief comments, Koy Kuong, spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said Cambodia had nothing to say about Sweden’s decision because it was the “internal affairs of another country.”