By Prak Chan Thul
PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen was defiant on Tuesday, a day before the European Union is to decide whether to end the country's special trade preferences over human rights concerns, saying the nation "will not bow down" to foreign demands.
Cambodia benefits from the EU's "Everything But Arms" (EBA) trade programme, which allows the world's least-developed countries to export most goods to the European Union free of duties.
The European Union has threatened to suspend the trade preferences over a crackdown on the opposition, NGOs and the media by Hun Sen, who has ruled the country of 16 million for more than 35 years.
In a speech on Tuesday, Hun Sen said he wouldn't bow to respond to EU's demands.
"Therefore, we call on the Cambodian people to stand up to protect Cambodia's independence, sovereignty and peace. Let's not bow down to anyone, we must work hard to live," Hun Sen said.
"We want to be friends and partners with all countries around the world but if they do not understand us and want to force us, we don't agree," Hun Sen said. "We have already tasted countless war, tragedies they had made for us, but we are not dead."
The garment industry is Cambodia's largest employer, generating $7 billion for the economy each year. Exports to EU markets were worth $5.4 billion in 2018, according to official data.
A document posted on European Parliament's website suggested that the EBA withdrawal from Cambodia would be on "some products," and that rice was not included.
Self-exiled Cambodian opposition figure Sam Rainsy said on Tuesday that Hun Sen should have complied with the EU's demands, aimed at restoring fundamental freedoms in Cambodia.
"Even a partial suspension of the EBA scheme is a sad development because it will still affect Cambodian workers' jobs and our country's economy at least to a certain degree and because such a development could have been avoided," Rainsy told Reuters in an email.
Rainsy said that "because of Hun Sen's stubbornness" the Cambodian people will lose on both fronts.
"Let's hope that Hun Sen will open his mind and his heart to start negotiation with the EU to prevent any further commercial sanctions because of his repressive regime," Rainsy said.
(Reporting by Prak Chan Thul. Editing by Kay Johnson and Gerry Doyle)