Ruling party and civil society leaders on Friday expressed regret over the announced closure of the Swedish Embassy next year, with concerns raised over diplomatic relations and funding for human rights work.
The Swedish Foreign Affairs Ministry announced on Thursday that the Phnom Penh embassy would be closed by the end of 2021, and its work transferred to its embassy in Bangkok. It said it was part of the ministry’s “continuous adaptation.”
Swedish Ambassador Bjorn Haggmark said in an email on Friday that the closure stemmed from a change in strategy that was decided in June.
“This will affect certain areas and activities to which Sweden has contributed so far,” Haggmark said, with that work set to be carried out by Swedish aid agency Sida.
“What form Sida’s continued presence in Cambodia should take is currently under review.”
In June, the embassy said it would phase out bilateral funding to the Cambodian government to focus on human rights work.
CPP spokesperson Sok Eysan said the ruling party’s foreign policy was to “gather friends in the world — whether white eyes, blue eyes, whether long nose or short nose, we want to be friends with all of them.”
The Swedish Embassy’s announced closure was “regretful news.” “But the regret is only our regret. It is up to the Swedish government to decide,” Eysan said.
Nevertheless, he rejected Sweden’s past criticisms over alleged human rights violations, saying Cambodia had “complete peace, political stability, respect for human rights and democracy.”
“When they remove an embassy, it inevitably affects the relationship. When the relationship is good, they open an embassy. When the relationship is not good, they remove an embassy,” he said.
“We do not want it. In our hearts and in our principles, we do not want to be enemies with any country.”
Chak Sopheap, executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, which has received Swedish funding, said the announcement was unexpected.
“It is surprising news and regrettable for Cambodia to lose the key representative embassy that supported many actions and many key sectors for our country,” Sopheap said. “In terms of funding, they’ve always supported human rights, democracy, civil society.”
The closure could bring difficulties for diplomatic relations and civil society, but she did not think the funding for human rights work would decrease. “It could be bigger than before,” she said.
Cambodian Journalists Alliance director Nop Vy said Sweden was also a strong supporter of independent media initiatives. “The country supports the media, including CamboJA,” Vy said. “It could cause some difficulties.”
VOD’s parent organization, the Cambodian Center for Independent Media, also receives Swedish funding through a donor organization, acting director Danilo Caspe said. He said any changes in funding would be up to the donor, but CCIM assumes the embassy’s closure will have no effect.
Cindy Cao, associate researcher at the European Institute for Asian Studies, said in a message on Friday that Sweden’s announcement appeared to be in line with its earlier decision to withdraw development aid to the Cambodian government.
“Closing the Swedish Embassy may be an additional signal that Sweden is willing to disengage,” Cao said.
However, the decision might not be beneficial for democracy and human rights, she said.
“I am skeptical because development, democracy and human rights are interrelated and arguably mutually supportive,” she said. “Supporting the dialogue between the Government and civil society actors is crucial to reach these objectives. … I am unsure the Swedish strategy will help to support the necessary dialogue to reach the objectives of democracy and human rights.“
Social analyst Seng Sary said the closure reflected the Cambodian government’s unwillingness to reform in the face of criticism.
“Sweden is a country that shows dissatisfaction with the leadership of the [Cambodian] government,” Sary said. “Cambodia did not change to a democratic track. They’ve decided to remove the embassy. If we look into the diplomatic angle, it’s a slap to the government.”
Additional reporting by Matt Surrusco and Michael Dickison