The National Assembly on Friday voted to approve two comprehensive trade agreements with China and South Korea, but debate around the new legislation focused heavily on China’s growing influence over the country.
All 98 lawmakers present on Friday voted in favor of the agreement with South Korea, which took less than 30 minutes to pass, but the agreement with China led to more than three hours of debate between members of the ruling CPP and opposition Sam Rainsy Party.
SRP lawmaker Son Chhay told the Assembly that many Chinese investment projects have been heavily criticized because of their impact on the environment and the lives of ordinary people, particularly ethnic minorities.
“There is a lot of criticism toward Chinese companies that they are affecting the environment, such as hydropower dams and land concessions,” Mr Chhay told the Assembly. “Does this law that we are approving help us to push China to pay more attention to environmental issues and the protection of ethnic peoples?”
Mr Chhay also said the government was giving more incentives to Chinese investors in Cambodia than to investors from South Korea and Japan.
SRP lawmaker Mu Sochua said that the impact of a Chinese agricultural investment business on the indigenous hilltribes of Mondolkiri province was as disastrous as Australia’s policies toward its aborigines.
“Wuzhishan, which is linked with Pheapimex, the land that was given to that one company, the economic concession, was 199,000 hectares. What does our law say? For one company, it is offered [just] 10,000 hectares,” Ms Sochua said, citing the law on economic land concessions.
Ethnic Banong villagers in Mondolkiri have protested on numerous occasions over the loss of their land to the Wuzhishan concession, but to no effect, she said.
Commerce Ministry Secretary of State Kem Sithan, the government representative defending both laws at the Assembly on Friday, said that the trade agreements were almost identical to those Cambodia had passed in order to join the World Trade Organization.
Mr Sithan said that it was “outdated” to speak of a big country, such as China, swallowing up a small country, such as Cambodia.
“I want to clarify that the People’s Republic of China has given a lot of aid to the Royal Kingdom of Cambodia,” he said, adding that the trade agreement would protect Cambodia’s interests.
“The Royal Kingdom of Cambodia is a member of the World Trade Organization. In the name of this organization, Cambodia has some obligations that it must continue to implement, such as drafting additional laws to make the laws of our Royal Kingdom of Cambodia compatible with member countries of the [WTO],” he said. “Opening up to the market, business, and goods are the most necessary obligations.”
Responding to the SRP criticism, CPP lawmaker Ney Pena praised China for giving loans without setting conditions on the government, and said that the entire parliament, on behalf of all the people of Cambodia, should thank Beijing for what it has done for the country.
“The National Assembly should thank the People’s Republic China, which has helped Cambodia,” Mr Pena said. “But since this morning, I have not heard anyone praising [China]. Instead there has been discussion that affects friendship with our key friend,” Mr Pena said referring to the opposition party’s criticism.
SRP lawmaker Ly Srey Vyna praised China for its rapid economic growth over the past 30 years, but noted that Cambodia had not enjoyed a similar experience, as it had not yet tackled corruption. Ms Srey Vyna noted that China had the death penalty for those found guilty of the worst forms of graft.
The government, she added, should no longer blame the Khmer Rouge regime, which was toppled in 1979, for the country’s slow progress on the economic front.
“Some Excellencies usually just raise the point that Cambodia has just gotten over war, Cambodia has just gotten over Pol Pot. I already know this…. I appeal to people to look at developments in neighboring countries, look at something that those countries have done successfully…. Now they are already prosecuting the Khmer Rouge leaders, so we all should look ahead, so we should stop talking about the war, the Khmer Rouge regime.”
The trade agreement with China was eventually passed with 96 lawmakers in favor of the bill and two abstaining.