Prime Minister Hun Sen has not been afraid of making his feelings clear about U.S. pressure on Cambodia’s dire record on human rights and democracy.
From calling American critics of Cambodian elections “long noses” who do not understand the country’s unique form of democracy in 2002 to accusing the U.S. ambassador last year of being a “liar” and purveyor of “wind and smoke” with threats of sanctions, Hun Sen has stressed he has little interest in any advice.
His dismissiveness has only grown more blunt as the White House slammed last year’s national election as “neither free nor fair” due to the absence of the banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and as the U.S. has made repeated calls for opposition leader Kem Sokha’s immediate release from house arrest.
Facing a concerted CNRP-led campaign to have the U.S. withdraw Cambodia’s tariff-free access to its market under the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) scheme if it does not change course and accede to demands to re-democratize Cambodia, Hun Sen’s response has been characteristically pithy: “You eat bread and I eat rice.”
Yet with Cambodia having inherited the baguette from the French, Hun Sen knows just as well as Americans that bread is best when buttered — and his government has this year accordingly started to splash out the necessary grease to have its voice heard among the long-nosed bread eaters in the Washington D.C. lobbying “swamp.”
Over a two-month period in April and May, Hun Sen’s government hired nine lobbyists to do its bidding in the halls of Washington D.C, according to filings made under the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), a 1938 law that requires citizens representing foreign governments to disclose their relationships.
The total cost: $1.2 million, with $720,000 earmarked as a retainer for the high-profile Washington D.C. firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck and $500,000 set aside for the otherwise little known Washington State-based “PacRim Bridges.”
With some 20 percent of Cambodia’s exports going to the U.S. — and the 40 percent that go to Europe thanks to its similar tariff-exemptions scheme also under threat for similar reasons — the cash splash appears aimed at preventing the loss of the GSP.
Unlike the European Union — which is presently in the middle of an 18-month review of Cambodia’s continued eligibility for it’s “Everything But Arms” (EBA) tariff exemptions scheme that started in February — Cambodia’s GSP privileges in the U.S. could be summarily suspended or revoked at the pen-stroke of U.S. President Donald Trump.
There are presently two draft bills before the U.S. Congress pushing for this. One bill — the Cambodia Trade Act of 2019 — was introduced by the Republican Ted Cruz in the Senate on January 8 and in the House of Representatives by Democrat Alan Lowenthal on February 26, and would require Trump to make a decision on Cambodia’s GSP status.
The other, introduced in the House as the Cambodia Democracy Act of 2019 with the co-sponsorship of House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Eliot Engel — who is a Democrat — and in the Senate as the Cambodia Accountability and Return on Investment Act of 2019 by the high-profile Republican Lindsey Graham, would force a temporary suspension in Cambodia’s eligibility for the GSP preferences.
Thanks to the high-profile backing, the bills are moving through Congress.