More than a hundred local and international civil society groups have asked the Swedish Embassy in Phnom Penh to “not abandon” progress made in Cambodia’s democratic development, a call that comes as the embassy decided to move to Thailand.
One-hundred sixteen non-governmental organizations working in Cambodia issued a letter to Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde last week, asking that she reverse a November announcement that the embassy would be moved to Thailand.
“Past experience taught us that to isolate Cambodia now could mean a repetition of past mistakes,” the letter reads.
“We urge the Swedish government to stick to their commitment to the global fight against climate change and COVID-19, with human rights and democracy as key to leaving no one behind.”
In November, the Swedish Foreign Ministry said the Phnom Penh embassy would be closed by the end of 2021 and moved to Bangkok. The statement added that the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency would continue its work in Cambodia.
Sweden said it would find “new ways” to continue engagement with Cambodia, and did not provide any other reasons for the pull out. Earlier in the year, Sweden had announced that it would stop all bilateral aid to Cambodia in July 2021. It said the deterioration in Cambodia’s human rights and democratic situation had forced the move, and that it would redirect these funds to support human rights defenders and democracy advocates.
Pech Pisey, executive director of Transparency International Cambodia, said civil society groups were aware of the values and significant impact the Swedish diplomatic mission had in Cambodia over the years.
“There is no doubt that Cambodia is heading toward the wrong direction and we fully understand the principles and rationale behind the decision of the Swedish government,” he said.
Viktoria Li, deputy director general head of communication at the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs, did not address the NGO letter but said that the decision to close the Swedish Embassy in Phnom Penh was based on an ongoing review of Sweden’s foreign representation.
“A constant process of change that sometimes involves opening or closing of embassies and consulates,” Viktoria said.
She said Sweden’s development cooperation in Cambodia, focusing on human rights, democracy and the rule of law, will continue in line with the Government’s decision of June 2020.
Koy Kuong, spokesperson at Cambodia’s Ministry Foreign Affairs, said the decision was an internal consideration of Sweden.
“In diplomatic relations, we don’t need to ask for any reason and it does not affect the relations between the two countries,” he said.
Chak Sopheap, executive director at the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said Sweden had long extended support to the Royal Government of Cambodia in a range of areas including governance, education, gender equality and human rights.
“While Sweden is planning to continue development cooperation, it will be difficult to build close connections and conduct outreach with local organizations with no direct presence in the country,” she said.
Ou Virak, president of Future Forum, said it was likely not much would change and that Sweden would continue to have a diplomatic presence and relationship with Cambodia.
“However, through their Bangkok embassy, I fear that the relationship might deteriorate further if we don’t have people on the ground to build the bridge,” he said.