Phnom Penh, Cambodia - The European Union has warned Cambodia that the "clock is ticking" after it officially launched the process of suspending the country's valuable trade privileges over rights concerns, paving the way for a move that analysts warn would be "catastrophic" to its economy.
The so-called Everything But Arms (EBA) trade scheme allows Cambodia to export products other than weapons to the EU at reduced tariff rates.
Revoking the favourable deal would cost Cambodia's economy $676m, according to the Southeast Asian country's minister of commerce. It would also result in expected mass layoffs in the key garment industry, which employs 800,000 people and has historically been prone to protests.
"It should be clear that today's move is neither a final decision nor the end of the process. But the clock is now officially ticking and we need to see real action soon," EU Commissioner for Trade Cecilia Malmstrom said in a statement announcing the decision on Monday.
The EBA, access to which has various human rights and democratic prerequisites, has been under threat since the country's main opposition party - the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) - was dissolved and its president arrested for treason ahead of last year's elections.
The July 2018 polls saw Prime Minister Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party (CPP) win in a landslide an essentially unopposed vote, extending its decades-long grip on power.
"If you want the opposition dead, just cut it," Hun Sen threatened last month during a speech commemorating his 34th year in power, lashing out at the EU over the prospect of the highly preferential scheme being revoked. The following day, an outspoken CNRP member who supports sanctions was arrested.
On Tuesday, government spokesman Phay Siphan took a softer approach. "We consider the EU not our enemy, just a partner, and we try our best to explain to them and maintain cooperation," he told Al Jazeera.
Phay Siphan argued, however, that Cambodia was being treated "unfairly", accusing the EU of not recognising the country's progress in sustaining peace and development after emerging from years of conflict and the genocidal Khmer Rouge.