• Eva Strnadová

Czech-Cambodian Diplomatic Pragmatism

Does political ethics remain an element of diplomatic negotiation or pragmatism has it all? Czech-Cambodian diplomatic relations should be scrutinised as they reveal the imperfect balance between business and human rights.



Czech Republic - An Open Country For Cambodia


The diplomatic relations between these the Czech Republic (then Czechoslovakia) and Cambodia were the strongest while the former was under the communist regime. Many Cambodians studied in Prague, including the current king of Cambodia Norodom Sihamoni. 


The Cambodian Prime minister Hun Sen was the first Cambodian Prime minister to visit the Czech Republic as an independent state. His official visit in October 2019 was part of a wider European tour, which included visits of Hungary and Bulgaria. The strategic choice of visited countries is not coincidental. All three countries were under the communist regime and developed diplomatic relations with Cambodia at that time. Therefore, Cambodian delegation paid a visit to European countries already more open to a dialogue. 

The openness to dialogue is an asset of these three countries as the European Union imposed trade sanctions on Cambodia in October 2018 after Cambodian rigged elections, which took place in August 2018. Cambodia is a constitutional monarchy operated as a representative parliamentary democracy. The current Prime Minister of Cambodia Hun Sen has held the office since 1985. While the King of Cambodia was selected in 2004 by a special nine-member Royal Throne Council after the abdication of King Norodom Sihanouk, a political change for the country can occur through parliamentary elections. However, since 2017 crackdowns on political dissent and free press, Cambodia has been described as a de facto one-party state. 


The State of Democracy in Cambodia


Cambodia has been systematically cracking down on all forms of political dissent since 2017. Universal Periodic Review of Cambodia conducted by Human Rights Watch criticised the country for its intensified onslaught on political opposition, civil society, and independent media, which lead to exiting the opposition before the general election held in July 2018. From the two previous cycles of the Universal Periodic Review, Cambodia accepted 301 recommendations out of 343 but has mostly failed in their implementation. 

"Cambodia is a Kingdom where the King shall fulfil His functions according to the Constitution and the principles of liberal multi-party democracy." Cambodia's Constitution of 1993 with Amendments through 2008

While the world was concerned about the persecution of the opposition and proceeded to diplomatic and economic sanctions, the Embassy of the Czech Republic in Phnom Penh informed about Cambodian interest in Czech foodtechpotential investments in health care and visit of Czech experts on geological survey and mining industry. What are the of political pragmatism and where do political ethics begin?


“When the end is good...it will always excuse the means.” Machiavelli 1883, Bk. I, ch. IX

Uninterrupted continuity of economic negotiations and investment in not unique to the Czech Republic. Previously this year, Japan was criticised for unilateral negotiation with Cambodia about investments. Japan has been for decades Cambodia’s largest aid donor and one of the largest foreign investors.


By 2010, China became Cambodia’s largest foreign donor. This translates into Japan’s weaker negotiation position in encouraging the democratisation of Cambodia. While Western democratic countries imposed economic and political sanctions on Cambodia, Japan nevertheless provided the country with electoral aid.


The imposed Western economic sanctions included an end of aid to the Cambodia. Consequently to the dissolution of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party and an imposed five-year political ban on 118 of its senior members before the 2018 election, the European Union condemned the party’s dissolution. It ended all funding for the 2018 general election. Sweden announced an end of its aid to the Cambodian government except for education and research. The United States suspended most aid.


The Western aid and trade for Cambodian import was and remains important for Cambodia. Since the close diplomatic relations with China, democratic countries find it more challenging to direct Cambodia to democracy through negotiation. Nevertheless, Western countries are important as Cambodia exports much of the output of its garment industry to the West and Western tourists bring money to the local economy.


Beginnings of the Czech Political Pragmatism


It is all the more surprising that the Czech Republic does not follow the foreign policy of the European Union. Conversely, Czech politicians actively seize the opportunity for business and investment. In November 2018, both countries signed Memorandum of Cooperation between Ministries of Foreign Affairs.


Cambodia does not have an embassy in the Czech Republic. Nevertheless, Cambodian ambassador Touch Sopharath from Germany officially visited Prague in January 2019 and was welcomed by the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Martin Tlapa. The discussed topics mirrored the before stated interests of the Czech Republic - health, education, environment, tourism and international trade. 


The Czech Republic has clearly stated a positive approach to business-related negotiation with Cambodia. In October 2019, the two countries signed a memorandum of understanding on Mineral Resources Cooperation in the Field of Geological Research and Technical Assistance. This will pave the way for Czech businessmen to invest in Cambodia.


Furthermore, the Czech Republic prioritises Cambodia in its humanitarian aid programme. Cambodia was recognised, among Bosnia and Herzegovina, Ethiopia, Moldova and Zambia, as a priority partner country from 2018 to 2023 for Czech humanitarian aid. Consequently, a Bilateral Development Cooperation Program was developed. 



Unsurprisingly given the previous negotiation, human rights were only routinely discussed during the press conference this October. Andrej Babiš confirmed that human rights and the political situation in Cambodia were discussed. He nevertheless assured his Cambodian counterpart that he would question the EU’s threat to withdraw Cambodia from a regime called “Everything But Arms”, under which all Cambodian products enjoy tariff-free access to the European market. In return, the Cambodian government is supposed to respect the democratic and humanitarian principles of the UN charter, the EU’s Lisbon Treaty and the conventions of the International Labour Organisation on workers’ rights. 


Defence As a Part of Political Ethics


If we accept the possibility of economic negotiation to be part of political ethics, how can we justify the central theme of the visit - defence? The defence relations between the Czech Republic and Cambodia were first established in 1956 as a part of wider bilateral ties. Five Aero Vodochody L-39 Albatros basic trainer/light attack jet aircraft were delivered beginning in the mid-1990s to the Royal Cambodian Air Force. Both Andrej Babiš and his Cambodian counterpart stressed the possibility of cooperation in the defence industry. The previously bought L-39s are ageing and require upgrades or replacements. As Cambodia wants to strengthen diplomatic ties with the Czech Republic, it is not surprising to consider a new purchase.


The question remains whether the economic negotiations can involve cooperation in the defence industry of Cambia under Hun Sen's dictatorship and authoritarian rule. As we see Cambodia build and improve its foreign relations, the relationship with countries like the Czech Republic will continue to be essential to watch, It tells of as much about the opportunistic Cambodian dictatorial regime as about the opportunistic Czech capitalism.