Cambodia's multi-billion dollar garment and footwear sector is the country's largest formal employer / © AFP/File
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen blasted the European Union on Saturday for holding the country "hostage" with threats to axe trade preferences after it held elections with no credible opposition.
The EU threatened in October to withdrawal the duty-free Everything But Arms scheme (EBA), which benefits exports from Cambodia's garment and footwear sector, the largest formal employer.
The multi-billion dollar sector employs hundreds of thousands of labourers and is seen as one of the 66-year-old's few vulnerable positions in a country he has run for nearly 34 years by building up vast patronage networks.
In recent months he has requested pardons for activists and eased up on the crippled opposition, which was banned in a Supreme Court ruling ahead of the July vote swept by Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party.
The moves were seen as concessions to avoid any loss of the trade preferences but Hun Sen has baulked at the idea of his hand being forced, and said so in his most direct comments on the issue yet in a meeting with former Irish prime minister Enda Kenny in Phnom Penh.
After bringing up several historical grievances with the bloc he said it was making another mistake by "using EBA as a threat to sanction Cambodia ... and take about 16 million Cambodians as hostage of the so-called EBA."
Hun Sen's spokesman conveyed the remarks to reporters. They were also posted on the leader's official Facebook page and quickly picked up by state-friendly media.
He asked Kenny to pass along his message to the EU.
Hun Sen is known for fiery speeches that toss aside diplomatic niceties, but he usually avoids calling out the trade scheme by name.
Last month he rapped Western governments for pushing "democracy and human rights" on the country in comments believed to be tied to the EU threat.
Removing the preferences is a long, drawn out process that would take several months.
The ruling party swept all seats in the July vote turning Cambodia into a one-party state.
The Southeast Asian country enjoys the economic support of China, which in turn relies on its smaller ally to support it in regional disputes over control of the potentially resource-rich South China Sea.