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Commerce Minister Advises Hun Sen to Lobby Against EU Sanctions

Prime Minister Hun Sen, center, and Commerce Minister Pan Sorasak, right, are pictured together at a trade expo, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, December 15, 2017. (Photo courtesy of Ministry of Commerce)

Hun Sen has publicly dismissed the importance of possible trade sanctions imposed by the U.S. and E.U.

Commerce Minister Pan Sorasak has written to Prime Minister Hun Sen advising the premier to lobby the European Union to avoid further sanctions over his government’s crackdown on political opposition to his rule.

A ruling Cambodian People’s Party spokesman on Monday confirmed the letter was authentic, but two government spokesman said they could neither confirm nor deny whether Sorasak had written the letter.

The European Union suspended its election funding for the 2018 general election following the banning of Cambodia’s main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, in November. The United States has also stopped its election funding and also imposed visa restrictions on several Cambodian officials.

The CNRP leader, Kem Sokha, was jailed in September and is awaiting trial on treason charges. More than 100 CNRP officials have also been banned from politics for five years.

The E.U. is currently reviewing Cambodia’s eligibility for a preferential trade scheme called Everything But Arms.

In the letter, dated December 4 and circulated online on Monday, Sorasak highlighted Cambodia’s dependence on the European and United States export markets.

Hun Sen has publicly dismissed the importance of possible trade sanctions imposed by the U.S. and E.U.

“If the E.U. requires Cambodia to pay its importing tax, the required payment would be up to $676 million annually,” the letter reads.

“To obstruct the decision to lift the tax concession from happening, Cambodia should lobby friendly countries who are members of the European Union through diplomatic and trade channels due to the fact that the European Union is mostly soft and understanding to Cambodia’s situation.”

Sok Eysan, CPP spokesman, said he thought the letter was “mostly real ... I think it’s true.”

The United States has said it is optimistic that there could be a reversal of the Cambodian government’s position, but there appears to be no sign from Phnom Penh that it is considering changing course.

On Sunday, Hun Sen in a speech dared foreign governments to impose further sanctions.

Bradley Jensen Murg, a political scientist at Seattle Pacific University, said: “I highly doubt that any sort of lobbying directed towards EU member states will be in any way effective in terms of shifting the development of sanctions. At the end of the day, the EU is in a time of flux, and as a relatively small country - Cambodia does not have much to bargain with.”

“At the end of the day, no one is going to stick their neck out for a country which has received a regular and constant barrage of negative media attention in light of the repression of the political opposition,” he added.