PHNOM PENH: Cambodian premier Hun Sen on Monday marked 34 years in power with a threat “to step on the throat” of his rivals if the EU ends trade preferences over the kingdom’s slide into one-party rule.
The European Union has warned it may withdraw its tariff-free Everything But Arms (EBA) scheme, which helps exports from Cambodia’s garment sector, after Hun Sen’s party won all parliamentary seats in polls last year.
The multi-billion-dollar garment and footwear industry provides a steady wage to hundreds of thousands of people in one of Southeast Asia’s poorest countries, and its ongoing success is seen as one of Hun Sen’s few remaining points of vulnerability.
His Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) swept the elections after the main opposition was banned from taking part, and its key figures were hit with jail sentences and legal charges or intimidated into silence.
In recent months, Hun Sen has loosened his chokehold on the crippled opposition, requesting pardons for jailed opposition members and journalists in a move seen as a reaction to the EU’s threat.
But on Monday, a typically bombastic Hun Sen warned he would “step on the throat further” of the opposition if the EU followed through with its threat to pull the EBA.
“If you want the opposition to die — cut it (the EBA),” he said at a public event Monday on the anniversary of his 1985 appointment as head of state.
“You should understand the price that you would pay,” Hun Sen said, adding “sanctions on Cambodia means killing the opposition party” as well as pulling all leverage for democracy and human rights.
The 66-year-old hammered home his point on Saturday to visiting former Irish prime minister Enda Kenny, accusing the EU of holding the country’s 16 million people “hostage” with the tariff threats.
Hun Sen is known for his overblown speeches that toss aside diplomatic niceties, but he usually avoids referring to the EU trade scheme by name.
Removing EU trade preferences is a long, drawn-out process that would take several months.
But Hun Sen has been emboldened after his party swept all parliamentary seats in the July 2018 vote.
The Southeast Asian country also enjoys the economic support of China.
Hun Sen said he will pay an official visit to Beijing later this month to meet with President Xi Jinping to discuss “economic, investment and development”.