Cambodia cancels holidays to boost growth but stalls on key rights issues for EU trade

A young protester calls for Prime Minister Hun Sen to step down on the final day of a three-day rally organized by opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, Phnom Penh, Oct. 25, 2013. Photo: Heng Reaksmey/VOA Khmer

The Cambodian government plans to eliminate six public holidays, including International Human Rights Day, in a move to attract investors. But the ploy has drawn criticism from civil society and suggests the government will refuse to engage with the EU on domestic rights issues.

By Skylar Lindsay

On August 7, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen announced that Cambodians would have 22 public holidays next year, reduced from 28 in 2019. The decree will eliminate International Children’s Day, International Human Rights Day and Paris Peace Agreement Day, which honours the end of the Cambodian-Vietnamese War after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, as well as the National Day of Remembrance for the victims of the Khmer Rouge.

Government officials claim the decision is intended to make the country’s workforce more productive and make Cambodia an easier place to do business. Ek Tha, spokesman for Cambodia’s Council of Ministers, said: “The government wants the Kingdom to be competitive and attract national and international investments.”

But the move has drawn questions from workers’ rights groups, unions and civil society at large. Some claim the government’s choice of holidays to eliminate reflects a troubling trend, suggesting it may prioritize foreign investment over honouring the country’s national history and human rights.

“The elimination of Human Rights Day, Paris Peace Agreement Day and International Children’s Day from the public holidays seems against the commitment of the Cambodian government to uphold and respect human rights as mentioned in the constitution and ratified human rights conventions,” Sar Mory, vice-president of the Cambodian Youth Network, told ASEAN Today.

The prime minister’s announcement has proved politically divisive but also suggests the government is unwilling to commit to more obvious reforms to support sustainable development.

The EU may decide as soon as mid-August to revoke Cambodia’s preferential trade status under the Everything But Arms (EBA) agreement over concerns about political repression and human rights in the kingdom. The move could cost the country more than US$700 million per year and cause hundreds of thousands of job losses. The Cambodian government is unwilling to implement reforms that would end labour rights violations, land grabs and political persecution, even though engaging with the EU would do more to support the Cambodian economy than eliminating holidays.

The government decree is another attempt to suppress political activism

The Cambodian government chose to get rid of holidays that unions and civil society groups have used as occasions to mobilise students, workers, pro-democracy groups and human rights defenders, both to honour the country’s history and to demand that the government uphold its ideals.

Opposition supporters wave national flags of some Western countries who were signatory parties to the 22-year-old Paris Peace Agreement, Phnom Penh, Oct 24, 2013. 
Photo: Heng Reaksmey/VOA Khmer

Previous demonstrations on International Human Rights Day drew attention to land grabs. 

“We always commemorate Paris Peace Agreement Day and Human Rights Day every year in different forms such as public forums, gathering or marching,” Mory told ASEAN Today. “The Cambodian government has not been happy with human rights defenders or pro-democracy activists who always demand that the Cambodian government respect the Paris Peace Agreement and its commitment to human rights.”

The government has no shortage of alternative choices for holidays: prior to the announcement, Cambodia had the most public holidays in the world. The majority of public holidays honour the country’s monarchy or Buddhist traditions.

Cambodia’s labour rights movement also sees the elimination of holidays, without any corresponding reforms to workplace conditions or worker protections, as a blow to workers.

“Cambodia workers are still paid low wages, given little social protection and they also face unhealthy and unsafe environments in the workplace,” said Mory. 

Like many countries with similar economies, Cambodia already has a six-day workweek.

The decree means most Cambodians will work an extra six days per year; however, wages will remain unchanged. Workers will also lose the opportunity to earn double their wage by working during the six holidays. 

The Cambodian government is sending a message to rights campaigners

“Omitting the Paris Peace Agreement and Human Rights days from the public-holiday list reflects that the government is unwilling to promote democracy any longer,” said Soeung Sen Karona, spokesperson for civil society group ADHOC.

The Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia has come out in support of the decision but many unions have objected to it.

“I want to request to the government to reconsider which holidays to cut,” said Pav Sina, president of Cambodia’s Collective Union of Movement of Workers.

“Allowing people to take these days off will make them learn about the value of their rights,” said Executive Director of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, Chak Sopheap. 

The government’s decision to target the anniversary of the Paris Peace Agreement has also drawn questions from civil society about the government’s priorities.

“[Paris Peace Agreement Day] is quite important for all Cambodian people regardless of political belief. This day should be kept as a public holiday and to remember the historical past,” Eang Vuthy, executive director at Equitable Cambodia, told ASEAN Today.

The treaty included a section guaranteeing the protection of human rights in Cambodia, as well as agreements outlining a political system stating “that Cambodia will follow a system of liberal democracy, on the basis of pluralism.”

“It was when democracy and [the respect of] human rights began in Cambodia,” said Am Sam Ath, technical supervisor at Cambodian human rights group Licadho.

Cutting public holidays isn’t the first step towards sustainable development in Cambodia

Even if the country’s unusually high number of public holidays is really a point of frustration for investors, there are other more effective areas of reform that would allow businesses and workers to promote sustainable development in the kingdom. Behind the circus of public holidays is the glaring fact that the government has refused outright to protect its status under the EBA agreement. In this light, the move to eliminate holidays such as Children’s Day and International Human Rights Day appears to be a short-sighted solution with politically inflammatory consequences.

Preserving Cambodia’s EBA status may be the single biggest thing that the government could do to continue the country’s upward development trajectory. In 2018, trade with the EU accounted for over a third of Cambodia’s exports, worth US$5.5 billion. 

The EU is calling for the protection of citizens’ political rights, freedom of expression and association, rights to organise and collective bargaining. It has also pushed for an end to exploitative land grabs. 

Groups such as the Cambodia Labour Confederation have called for business interests in Cambodia to work with the government to preserve the country’s EBA status by implementing reforms.

The EU has signalled that it’s willing to engage with Cambodian leaders. Negotiators aren’t seeking to strong-arm Hun Sen and gain control of Cambodian politics. The EU has cooperated with Cambodia on the human rights clauses of the EBA program since 2001.

The timing of the government’s announcement suggests that Cambodian leaders have no intention of engaging with the EU on democratic or rights reforms. In practice, eliminating the holidays is an indirect way to curtail civil society’s right to organise, assemble, and speak out about the very issues the EU is concerned about.