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UK pledges deeper bilateral ties with Cambodia ahead of role as ASEAN chair

United Kingdom Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab leaves a meeting with Cambodian environment minister Say Sam Al at the Ministry of Environment in Phnom Penh, June 23. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang
United Kingdom Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab leaves a meeting with Cambodian environment minister Say Sam Al at the Ministry of Environment in Phnom Penh, June 23. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang

United Kingdom Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has pledged to forge deeper bilateral ties between Cambodia and the UK at a meeting that has been criticized for not focusing more on human rights issues.

The UK Foreign Secretary’s visit to Cambodia comes amid concerns over the arrest of a number of environmental activists last week. Raab’s visit followed a few weeks after the US deputy secretary of state visited Cambodia on June 1 to express concerns over the Cambodian government’s crackdown on human rights defenders, as well as criticising an alleged Chinese military presence at Ream Naval Base.

Raab met his Cambodian counterpart Prak Sokhonn as well as Environment Minister Say Sam Al to discuss the UK’s Indo-Pacific tilt and cooperation around joint priorities such trade, COVID-19 recovery, human rights, the coup in Myanmar and climate change.

The Embassy said that the UK looks forward to building on these foundations as Cambodia takes on the important role of ASEAN Chair next year.

In a press release on Tuesday , the Embassy said that the ASEAN Dialogue Partnership would allow the UK to further strengthen relations with ASEAN countries based on shared interests, constructive engagements and mutual benefits.

Speaking to local publication Thmey Thmey after the meeting, Raab said that he had criticized the government’s ongoing campaign against the former opposition and environmental activists.

“I also did raise our concern around the recent criminal investigation, detention and prosecution particularly around political opponent Kem Sokha and also around the Mother Nature environmental activists,” he said.

According to the published schedule, Raab had originally planned to meet with Prime Minister Hun Sen. However, the prime minister cancelled the meeting due to self-quarantining after having come into contact with a positive COVID-19 case.

Environment Ministry spokesman Neth Pheaktra said that the meeting discussed the issue of combating climate change and direct assistance to Cambodia to promote the conservation of natural resources.

“There is not any promise of financial assistance yet, but the UK is ready to help the Ministry of Environment in the protection and conservation of natural resources,” he said.

“He will send a mission team to Cambodia to learn more in order to help the Ministry of Environment to improve the work of protection and conservation of natural resources, and the UK has also pledged to buy carbon credits from Cambodia.”

Pheaktra said that Cambodia has sold $11.6 million in carbon credits since 2016, which have been used to develop local communities in protected areas to improve their livelihoods.

Hoeun Sopheap, representative of the Prey Lang Community Network in Kampong Thom Province, welcomed the UK’s pledge, but suggested that Cambodia itself must be more strict in cracking down on illegal deforestation.

“At the moment Cambodia is losing some natural resources and I do not think it is too late to protect the natural resources and to stop deforestation by strengthening law enforcement,” he said. “We call on foreign donors, especially the United Kingdom, who are committed to helping Cambodia protect the environment, to monitor the authorities’ implementation of natural resource protection.”

The United States has stopped its financial support for the multi-million dollar “Greening Prey Lang” project, accusing Cambodian authorities of failing to prevent illegal logging and of targeting local communities who have tried to monitor ongoing deforestation.

The US embassy in Phnom Penh said in a statement last week that the country has invested more than $100 million in programs designed to combat illegal logging in Cambodia through the US Agency for International Development (USAID).

Raab’s visit comes amid mounting criticism of Cambodia’s crackdown on environmental activism. This week, three environmental activists were sent to pre-trial detention on charges of plotting and insulting the king by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court. The co-founder of environmental group Mother Nature has also been charged in absentia.

A video clip purportedly taken from an online Zoom meeting between Mother Nature environmental group co-founder Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson and a number of environmental activists has been posted on social media as supposed evidence that the activists were guilty of insulting the nation’s king.

The arrest of the three environmental activists has been criticised by a number of foreign embassies and civil society groups.

Political analyst Em Sovannara said that the UK wants Cambodia to facilitate ASEAN-UK cooperation during its time as ASEAN chairman next year.

“I’m sure the issue of human rights and democracy may not be raised much as it is putting pressure on the Cambodian government, so Britain does not want to face and needs Cambodia to mediate ASEAN-UK cooperation,” he said.

Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn said in the press release following the meeting that Cambodia is strongly supportive of the UK’s application to establish a dialogue partnership with ASEAN, taking into consideration its already very active engagement with the regional bloc.

According to the release, the two foreign ministers also exchanged views on a number of regional and international issues of common interest including the draft Code of Conduct on the South China Sea, both nations’ efforts with regards to Myanmar’s return to normalcy and the fight against climate change through a focus on the use of renewable energy.

During the meeting, Prak Sokhonn also briefed his counterpart about Cambodia’s current political situation, security and social development.

“They shared a common desire to further strengthen and expand bilateral relations and cooperation in various fields of mutual benefits, especially economy, trade, education, mine clearance, health and the environment,” the press release said.