Cambodia's foreign ministry on Thursday said a decision by the European Union to ramp up trade pressure on the country over human rights concerns was an "extreme injustice", adding it risked destroying decades of development in the country.
The EU last week said Cambodia would lose its special access to the world's largest trading bloc as a response to human rights concerns surrounding a July election that extended Prime Minister Hun Sen's three-decade rule.
"The Cambodian government can only take this decision as an extreme injustice when the EU blatantly disregards the considerable progress made by the country, despite its recent tragic past," Cambodia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.
"By implementing these withdrawal measures, the European Commission risks negating 20 year's worth of development efforts."
The EU announced that Cambodia would lose its special access to European markets under the so-called Everything But Arms (EBA) preferential trade scheme after it conducts a six-month review of Cambodia's duty-free status.
EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom said unless there were improvements, the trade preferences would be suspended, though the bloc's delegation in the country clarified the process still involved further decisions that could take a year.
Cambodia emerged from decades of war and the genocidal Khmer Rouge years in the early 1990s.
Over the past two decades, it has been the world's sixth-fastest growing economy, with average GDP growth rate of 7.6 percent, according to the World Bank, largely because of its garment exports bound mostly for the EU and the United States.
Cambodia's exports to the EU were worth 5bn euros ($5.8bn) last year, according to EU data, up from negligible levels less than a decade ago, with the EU using its trade policy to help develop Cambodia's economy.
The $7bn apparel industry is the kingdom's largest formal employer, providing jobs to some 740,000 people in a country with a population of 15 million.
Analysts say losing the trade scheme would be a major blow to the ruling party, which has hitched its star to economic progress and stability and faces questions of legitimacy after the vote.
Sit down and talk
Labour advocates have also cautioned against the move, citing its potential impact on employees.
Ath Thorn from the Coalition of Cambodia Apparel Workers Democratic Union said the government and the EU should "sit down for a talk" and find ways to avert the loss of the trade deal.
Rights groups said the July general election was not fair because of the lack of a credible opposition.
The main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) was dissolved by the country's Supreme Court at the government's request last year and did not take part in the election.
Following the CNRP dissolution, Hun Sen's allies ramped up a crackdown against critics, including opposition politicians and independent media.