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International Sanctions Loom After Cambodia Dissolves Opposition

Opposition party Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) President Kem Sokha greets his supporters from a truck as he leads a rally during the last day of campaigning ahead of communal elections in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Friday, June 2, 2017. Cambodia's longtime ruler Hun Sen warned opposition parties Friday not to challenge the result of Sunday's local elections or they could be dissolved. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)

As well as being officially banned, the Cambodia National Rescue Party had 118 officials banned from political activity for the next five years.

Cambodia could lose economic privileges granted by western powers and face further visa bans on officials if it chooses to ignore calls to reinstate the country’s main opposition party, analysts say.

As well as being officially banned, the Cambodia National Rescue Party had 118 officials banned from political activity for the next five years. Thousands of positions on local authorities won by the CNRP at local elections in 2017 will be handed to smaller parties.

Political analyst Ou Virak said he thought the United States would end preferential trade with Cambodia, while the European Union could move to exclude the country from its Everything But Arms scheme.

Last week, two influential U.S. Congressmen, Steve Chabot and Alan Lowenthal, described the Supreme Court ruling against the CNRP as “a dark day for the fledgling democracy of Cambodia”, while the White House issued a rare statement, saying it had “significantly set back Cambodia’s democratic development,” and warned that Cambodia has now placed “its economic growth and international standing at risk.”

The White House stated that the US will take “concrete steps” to respond to the “deeply regrettable actions” of the Cambodian government and terminated its $1.8 million funding to the National Election Committee.

Hours after the court ruling was announced in Phnom Penh, the U.S. Senate passed Resolution 279, which considers adding senior Cambodian government officials to a list of foreign officials who have their assets blocked and suffer from travel bans.

In order to avoid this outcome, Cambodia will have to release the jailed opposition leader, Kem Sokha, who faces spurious treason charges; reopen radio stations closed as part of a crackdown on independent media; allow civil society groups to operate freely, and organize free and fair elections in 2018.

The Resolution was co-sponsored by Senators John McCain and Dick Durbin.

Ou Virak, founder, and president of the Future Forum, a think tank, said that sanctions will also be placed on the economy.

“I predict that if there is no easing of tensions or negotiation, the US will also terminate its GPS, which is ... preference status, given to a poor country to export their products to the US,” he said.

Cambodia has befitted from a General System of Preferences status since 1997 and has exported hundreds of millions dollars worth of products to the US since. In 2016, Cambodia exported $179 million under the program.

The Office of United States Trade Representative is currently reviewing the program and Cambodia is also under review, according to a Facebook post by the US embassy on November 15.

Cambodia’s major markets are the EU and US with an annual export volume of over $7 billion. In 2016, Cambodia exported $4.5 billion worth of goods to the EU.

At stake is the EU’s “Everything but Arms” scheme – similar to the US GSP, that Cambodia has benefited from.

“If they cut the [tax preferences], they will not give them back because Cambodia is not a poor country like in the past,” Virak said. “This will affect our economy.”

The European Union considered the CNRP dissolution “a significant step away from the path of pluralism and democracy” and urged Cambodia to swiftly restore the situation in which all parties, including “the CNRP, their leaders, and their supporters are able to carry out freely their legitimate functions.”

“Respect of fundamental human rights is a prerequisite for Cambodia to continue to benefit from the EU's preferential Everything But Arms scheme,” EU statement added.

Sweden is now reviewing its engagement with Cambodia. The announcement came as it decided to stop initiating new government-to-government development cooperation agreements.

Former opposition leader Sam Rainsy said this all can be avoided and called his compatriots to demand Prime Minister Hun Sen step down.

“If Mr. Hun Sen remains in power and continues to do these bad things there will be sanctions, there will be economic sanctions,” Rainsy told VOA Khmer. “So if Mr. Hun Sen continues to do these bad things, we won’t have freedom, we won’t have economic prosperity.”

Sam Rainsy added that Hun Sen has to change his politics, to end suppression of the CNRP, to return basic rights and freedom to the Cambodian people and free all political prisoners, including Sokha.

This is a dilemma for the ruling party: to choose between competing with the opposition at the next year’s election and dealing with international pressure on both economic and political fronts.

Prime Minister Hun Sen has chosen the path of economic pressure.

“I very much welcome the US cut off its funding to the National Election Committee,” Hun Sen said recently on state television. “This means that you talk about democracy and you cut funding to the National Election Committee. You take part in killing democracy in Cambodia.”