KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Exiled Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy said Tuesday the European Union's assessment of whether to suspend trade privileges for his country will add momentum to efforts to restore democracy despite a government crackdown.
The EU finalized a preliminary report Tuesday that Sam Rainsy said would be the basis for suspending trade privileges for Cambodia. The EU announced earlier this year that it would begin a monitoring process to decide on the ending of preferential duty-free and quota-free imports from the Southeast Asian nation. It said it acted on concerns that Cambodia was limiting human and labor rights.
The EU did not immediately make the report public but said it had been sent to the Cambodian authorities.
The report comes amid several developments that have shaken the Cambodian political scene.
Sam Rainsy made a well-publicized trip in which he vowed to return to his homeland to spark a popular movement to unseat long-serving authoritarian Prime Minister Hun Sen. Cambodia's government had said he and other exiled colleagues were unwelcome, and managed to hinder them from entering on Saturday, their intended date.
However, as Sam Rainsy found himself stuck in Malaysia, a Cambodian court announced Sunday that it was releasing from house arrest Kem Sokha, his co-leader in the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, who had been detained without trial for more than two years on a treason charge widely seen as specious. It retained the charge against him and barred him from political activity.
The release of Kem Sokha suggested that Hun Sen, whose hard line included detaining scores of opposition supporters accused of supporting Sam Rainsy's return plan, may be seeking to assuage his critics — especially the EU — by projecting an image of compromise.
The possibility of the EU junking Cambodia's trade privileges is perhaps the greatest leverage the opposition holds over the situation, as an economic downturn could erode the support Hun Sen has earned with Cambodia's economic growth.
"If they don't want Cambodia to face an economic crisis, with hundreds of thousands of workers losing their jobs, they must restore democracy," Sam Rainsy told a news conference outside Malaysia's Parliament building after meeting a group of Malaysian lawmakers.
The EU initiated its move after Hun Sen's ruling party won a sweeping victory in 2018 elections. The EU and others said the polls were not free and fair because the Cambodia National Rescue Party — the sole credible opposition force — was dissolved in 2017 by Cambodia's Supreme Court, which is seen as being under the government's influence.
Sam Rainsy insisted Tuesday that the timing was now right for peaceful resistance to topple Hun Sen's government due to the "unique combination of internal pressure and external pressure."
Phnom Penh's release of Kem Sokha from house arrest was an indication of mounting pressure on the government, he said.
Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng said Sunday on his Facebook page that Sam Rainsy was now allowed to enter Cambodia but would have to face a raft of charges and standing convictions. Sam Rainsy did not say Tuesday when he might make the journey.
"I will stay in the region because the situation can change very quickly, and I will go back to Cambodia," he said.
Associated Press writer Sopheng Cheang in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, contributed to this report.