The European Union told Cambodia on Friday it will lose its special access to the world’s largest trading bloc, and said it was considering similar trade sanctions for Myanmar in a toughening of EU policy on human rights in Southeast Asia.
After months of pressure from rights groups and the European Parliament, the EU’s trade chief Cecilia Malmstrom said the bloc was ready to punish abuses in both countries by removing trade preferences.
The EU warned Cambodia in July that it could lose its special trade status after elections returned a strongman to power after 30 years in office, and it has censured Myanmar over its treatment of the Muslim Rohingya.
“Our trade policy is value-based. These are not just words. We have to act when there are severe violations,” Malmstrom told reporters after a meeting of EU trade ministers in Austria.
Malmstrom accused Myanmar of “the blatant violation of human rights” in Myanmar, referring to what the West says is ethnic cleansing of Rohingyas and the failure of civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi to resolve the crisis.
A recent U.N. report accused Myanmar’s military of gang rapes and mass killings with “genocidal intent” in Rakhine state and called for its commander-in-chief and five generals to be prosecuted under international law.
Myanmar has denied most of the allegations in the report, blaming Rohingya “terrorists” for most accounts of atrocities.
The consideration of trade sanctions over the Rohingya crisis confirms a Reuters report on Wednesday.
However, the European Commission, which handles EU trade policy, is torn between supporting the development of Myanmar’s oil-and-textile economy and sanctioning the country.
The EU will send a fact-finding mission to Myanmar in the coming days, likely lasting up to four days, to see the extent of the rights abuses and the government’s willingness to change course, one EU official said.
“There is a clear possibility that a withdrawal (of EU trade preferences) could be the outcome,” Malmstrom later wrote in a blog post on the European Commission’s website.
Government spokesman Zaw Htay on Friday said removing the trade preferences would lead to job losses in the country’s garment sector.
He also said Myanmar had established a commission to probe allegations of human rights abuses and that the bloc should give the country time to report its findings.
“If a country is willing to do an investigation and if the process is not finished yet, the international community shouldn’t intervene,” Zaw Htay said.