Many Europeans take an interest in Cambodia in South East Asia.
Since the bloody regime of the Khmer Rouge was overthrown in 1979, several countries and trade unions have pumped support and money into Cambodia to strengthen democracy and human rights.
Trade union rights are in focus: Since 2014, a four-party collaboration between Sweden, ILO, H&M and Swedish trade union IF Metall has been in place to improve industrial relations in the textile industry. But instead, Cambodia has now abolished democracy and union representatives are being blacklisted.
Former Khmer Rouge General Hun Sen has been the country’s leader for the past 33 years.
He has followed the usual manual of dictators: imprisoned the main opposition leader, shut down independent media and locked up journalists on false accusations.
Hun Sen dismisses the criticism by referring to all the support the government receives from Beijing.
China’s new economic Silk Route, the Belt and Road Initiative, cements the pattern.
The clearest example is the economic special zone in Sihanoukville. Cambodia’s textile industry is dominated by Chinese factories making the most of the favourable trading terms that Cambodia enjoys with the EU and the United States.
A study by researchers at the University of Amsterdam found that the zone’s factory owners have a coordinated strategy for exploiting workers. They only get short-term contracts and those trying to organise through unions are sacked and blacklisted.
At the same time, China has created 21,000 jobs in the zone, a figure that could rise to 80,000 by 2022.
A massive influx of Chinese loans and investments has made Cambodia more and more like a Chinese subsidiary. In 2017, construction contracts worth US$17.5 billion were signed in a country whose entire GDP was just over US$20 billion.
Cambodia’s economy is growing rapidly. But the massive loans have also made Cambodia dependent on China’s Communist Party.
The road seems to be paved towards increased oppression and reduced democracy. But the EU still has a trump card; it is Cambodia’s most important export market.
A scheme called “Everything but Arms” gives Cambodia duty-free access to the EU on all goods except, yes – guess what? The terms require respect for workers’ rights and human rights.
The EU warned earlier this year that the agreement could be under threat. Either way, for Sweden and other donor countries, Hun Sen’s dictatorship is a dismal result after decades of support.
It should lead to a review of what was done wrong.