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US Senators Turn to Trade Sanctions to ‘Restore Cambodian Democracy’

A side-by-side photo of two U.S. Senators: Chris Coons (left) and Ted Cruz (right). (VOA Khmer)

The EU has also begun a process to remove trade preferences from Cambodia under the “Everything But Arms” scheme, which Cambodia saves almost $700 million annually in tariffs.

US senators have urged Cambodia to reverse course an reinstate the country’s main opposition party or face the possibility of trade sanctions.

Senators Ted Cruz and Chris Coons introduced the Cambodia Trade Act last week, which would require the Trump administration to review the General System of Preferences (GSP), a preferential trading scheme after its leaders failed to heed to international demands for reform.

“I think this is an important signal to the Cambodian government that they need to reconsider some of the recent actions or face a very real possibility of review of their GSP eligibility,” Coons told VOA Khmer. “This is a bi-partisan expression of concern about the direction of the Cambodian government.”

The Cambodian government cracked down on independent media, civil society groups, and opposition politicians in the lead up to the general elections in July 2018. The head of the opposition is now under house arrest.

“I have some real concerns about the ways in which the government has been using its authority to crack down on free speech, on opposition groups, and would welcome a more open society in Cambodia,” Coons said.

A GSP beneficiary country must meet the eligibility criteria established by Congress, including taking steps to afford internationally recognized worker rights; implementing commitments to eliminate the worst forms of child labor; and the extent to which a country provides adequate and effective protection of intellectual property rights.

Cambodia exported more than $400 million worth of products duty-free to the US in 2017, according to Ken Loo of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia.

The EU has also begun a process to remove trade preferences from Cambodia under the “Everything But Arms” scheme, which Cambodia saves almost $700 million annually in tariffs.

Cruz said that the bill is aimed at reinforcing steps taken by its EU partner and holding Prime Minister Hun Sen and his government to account.

"Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen has exploited preferential treatment afforded to it by the United States and Europe,” Cruz said in a statement. “He has failed to meet basic labor rights standards, undermined the integrity of elections in Cambodia, and tilted toward China.”

“Cambodia has forgotten any image of democracy,” Senator Patrick Leahy told VOA Khmer.

The bill is expected to go the Senate’s Foreign Relations committee in two months, according to Coons.

Senator Kevin Cramer of North Dakota said he has not been approached by the bill sponsors, but agreed sanctions need to be applied fairly.

“I think we ought to look at every opportunity to influence the right outcome there and every other country similarly,” he said.

The United States is Cambodia's second-largest export market after the European Union. Cambodia exports $3 billion worth of goods annually. Most exported goods are garments, shoes, leather products and plastic.