Workers in a Cambodian garment factory. Photo: Facebook

After I published yet another story in Asia Times last week on the possibility of Cambodia being removed from the United States’ and European Union’s preferential trade deals (the GSP and EBA respectively, which grant quota and tariff-free status to some Cambodian exports), I received a message on Twitter posing a question I realize I haven’t yet tried to tackle. “Would you,” I was asked, “consider as ‘fair’ any measure that would affect any innocent and vulnerable communities that are not responsible for the current ‘democratic’ situation in Cambodia and why?”

To put it briefly, numerous business organizations, trade unions and the Cambodian government itself have argued that the EU and US shouldn’t remove Cambodia’s preferential trade terms because it would disproportionally affect ordinary workers and the poorest in society. It is thought that with tariffs and quotas reimposed on Cambodian exports, the country’s vital manufacturing sector would slump, as businesses move operations elsewhere, and the country’s 800,000-plus textile workers would face mass layoffs.

Yet many dodge a necessary corollary that ought to be positioned at the outset. Is the Cambodian government the legitimate representative of the people? Or, more accurately, was last year’s general election a fair representation of the people’s will?

Much of the international community thinks not, as Washington made clear at the time. The election was “neither free nor fair and failed to represent the will of the Cambodian people,” the White House said shortly after the ballot. The ruling party, after all, had its main competitor, the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), forcibly dissolved by the Supreme Court in late 2017, and the party’s president Kem Sokha arrested for treason. The ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) then went on to win all 125 seats in the National Assembly, adding to its near-monopoly in the Senate and provincial offices. (More voters spoiled their ballots than opted for the second-placed party.) All this amid a worsening of human rights and free speech.

So if one thinks last year’s election was valid and free, and the current government is the genuine representation of the people, isn’t it perfectly fair for the electorate to suffer the consequences of their government’s actions? Wouldn’t the government’s evocation of protecting national sovereignty be reasonable if popular sovereignty was also in need of protection, despite the economic consequences? But if one thinks last year’s election was a fraud and the CPP government isn’t legitimate, wouldn’t it appear unfair that ordinary people should pay for the deeds of a government they didn’t choose? (The latter interpretation appears to be the basis of question I was asked.)

Yet the question is more complex than this syllogism. If there is a coherent axiom throughout history, it is that innocents pay the price of their rulers’ capriciousness. There is no reason to think Cambodia today is exempt from this; its past certainly hasn’t been.

But since it is an inherently consequentialist question being posed – we are discussing whether the consequences would be fair, not the reason it is being done – we must think about the intended outcome. (I might add that I have already laid out a case for why the EU, for itself, is perfectly in its rights to rescind its trade privileges from Cambodia, but I also have argued why if the EU offers a carrot, not a stick, it would be a more effective way of getting the Phnom Penh government to mend it ways.)

We see no motive whatsoever from Washington or Brussels to injure ordinary people specifically, nor the poorest, and neither are they rushing to do so

First, it should be noted that both the EU and the US are still supplying aid to Cambodia, and much of this is finding its way to the poorest in society, the same people who would be affected by the removal of the EBA (Everything But Arms) and GSP (Generalized System of Preferences). Equally important, trade privileges would be lost after a long period of review (the investigation started in February by the EU is expected to last 18 months), giving ample time for businesses to adapt, and perhaps put aside some profit now for future costs. And tariffs would be reintroduced incrementally, meaning that the most sensitive of industries, namely the garment and footwear sectors, the largest employers in the country, would likely be the last effected.

So we see no motive whatsoever from Washington or Brussels to injure ordinary people specifically, nor the poorest, and neither are they rushing to do so. Moreover, almost every comment from a European official – including George Edgar, the EU ambassador to Cambodia – implies that the EU really doesn’t want to rescind Cambodia’s EBA designation, despite its threats.

Second, it might be reasonably argued that the consequences of the trade schemes’ removal have been exaggerated. Granted, there is much to be concerned about – and much that cannot be predicted. Even a minor slump in exports will almost certainly see some firms quit the country, taking with them their investments, and leaving numerous people jobless. And since most formal workers in Cambodia tend to give a portion of their pay to their families, it is a decent rule of thumb that each worker provides for at least one other person’s livelihood. So 50,000 layoffs would affect the income of 100,000 people – and so forth.

Yet a document prepared by the European Parliament this year noted that the “most relevant precedent is Sri Lanka,” which lost its European trade privileges between 2010 and 2017, but in its equally important textile sector only 10,000 workers – or 4% of the sector’s workforce – lost their jobs during this period. “Judging by this precedent, forecasts of over half of Cambodian textile workers losing their jobs are probably over-pessimistic,” it stated.

So even here we see that the EU doesn’t think its threat is as perilous to ordinary Cambodians as some are making out. (If you read this aforementioned document, it is clear that the EU is also sensitive to whether “eradicating poverty” or “promoting human rights” should take priority.)

Third, I think it is acceptable to ask why the EU and US took so long to get involved in the Cambodia question. They waited until months after the July 2018 general election when they had far more influence over the Phnom Penh government in early 2017, the time it began changes to the law (one, for example, that forced Sam Rainsy to resign as CNRP president in February that year), which portended the more repressive tactics employed later in the year. An earlier interest by the EU and US in what was happening in Cambodia, and stiffer and sooner warnings that trade privileges were contingent on democratic conditions, might have been more effective than the wait-and-see attitude they took.

Fourth, we haven’t really had the opportunity to learn the opinions of Cambodians on this matter, since those who have dared to speak honestly, and not necessarily encouragingly, about the EBA’s removal have faced abuse or worse. Kong Mas, a young CNRP member from Svay Rieng province, was arrested in March and charged with “incitement” after he posted stories about the EBA on his Facebook page. His arrest was no doubt meant pour encourager les autres. So I cannot say with any authority if there is a proportion of Cambodians who think it is fair that they should suffer if it means political progress.

And last, it seems to me most unfair if the EU and US do not stick to the principles outlined in their EBA and GSP schemes, which specifically state that privileges will only be given to countries that abide by certain criteria on democracy and human rights. Moreover, now that they have taken the stance that there need to be some political changes in Cambodia, it would be wrong from them to walk back on this.

This raises the central question: Is it more unfair for the EU and US to turn their backs on the democratic hopes of Cambodians, who got the taste of political autonomy before it was whipped off the table, and the human rights of Cambodians; or is it more unfair for the EU and US to try to restore this limited democracy if it worsens the financial situation of some ordinary Cambodians? My opinion is with the former. So to answer the question originally posed: It might not be fair, but the alternative is more unfair.

Yet it all depends on how the Cambodian government responds. And this is why the whole question is inversely framed. One might instead inquire: Is it “fair” for the Cambodian government to allow “innocent and vulnerable communities” to suffer in order to protect what it perceives as a breach of its national sovereignty?

As I have pointed out on numerous occasions (since it is rather important), what the US and EU are asking for is simply a return to how things were in 2016. That is, for Kem Sokha to be freed; the CNRP to be reinstated; some of the political laws imposed in 2017 to be rescinded; and for human-rights conditions and media freedom to be improved. These demands are restorative, not revolutionary – and are fully in line with Cambodia’s constitution.

Indeed, neither the EU nor the US has called for regime change, for politicians to resign or a redo to the 2018 general election – let alone boots on the ground. And there doesn’t even appear much interest in Washington or Brussels for the Cambodian government canceling the numerous convictions against Sam Rainsy and his peaceful return from exile. In short, what they are asking for is relatively trivial compared with what damage will be done to the economy if the preferential trade terms are rescinded.

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