In a cartoon for a local democracy think tank, Hun Sen and Prince Norodom Ranariddh are depicted as proud parents overseeing the hatching of the “new government.”
But a vulture representing the power hungry lurks in the sky, waiting to swoop in and attack the fledgling before it has a chance to thrive.
The cartoon, drafted last month for the Center for Social Development in Phnom Penh, illustrates the ambiguity many feel about the new government.
The new power-sharing agreement, coupled with recent Khmer Rouge defections, offers better odds than in 1993 for national reconciliation and good government, analysts say. But skeptics wonder whether the leaders will truly devote their energies to improving people’s lives or whether they will succumb again to what has been widely characterized as their self-serving ways.
Last month’s deadlock-breaking summit chaired by King Norodom Sihanouk was a “brilliant solution to get out of impasse, but whether it will build toward democracy and stability, everyone has a question mark about that,” said Chea Vannath, president of the Center for Social Development. “For me, I feel this is kind of a quick fix” in a country “still in convalescence, still sick.”
Signs of that sickness so permeate Cambodia that the challenges of reform would be daunting to the most-equipped leadership in the world, never mind the cash-strapped Cambodian government, a delicate coalition of former battlefield enemies.
According to the UN Development Program, Cambodia ranks 140 out of 174 countries in human development. Infant mortality is the highest in Asia, and 40 percent of children under 5 are malnourished. Sixty-five percent of Cambodians do not have access to safe water, only about half have adequate access to health services. Life expectancy is only 51 years for men, 54 for women. In addition, the country has one of the highest HIV infection rates in the world.
Besides addressing basic needs, Cambodia faces overwhelming challenges in addressing broader issues such as economic and public administration reform, corruption, social justice, and environmental destruction.
A recent survey by Chea Vannath’s group found that 85 percent of Cambodians accept corruption as part of their daily lives. Inadequate public salaries in part have fueled a system of informal fees or bribes collected by everyone including teachers, fire fighters, health practitioners, traffic cops and soldiers.
How does one begin to reform such a messed-up system? And does the government have the financial resources to carry it out?
Just about everyone has a slightly different idea, but common themes arise: ensure security, establish a rule of law, invest in the people—especially in the oft-neglected rural areas.
Overseeing these daunting challenges is a delicate ruling coalition of the CPP and Funcinpec, which less than 18 months ago was fighting each other in the streets of Phnom Penh.
“The priority should be to promote mutual trust between the ruling parties” so it leads to security and law and order, said Lao Mong Hay, executive director of the Khmer Institute of Democracy. “All other things will fall from that.”
Kao Kim Hourn, executive director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, also identifies trust as key and said the recent summit could mark a watershed toward building cooperation between Hun Sen’s CPP and Prince Ranariddh’s defanged Funcinpec party.
“Funcinpec used to be No1 on paper but No 2 in reality. Now Funcinpec is No 2 in everything,” Kao Kim Hourn said. “Therefore, there is no reason for the parties to be confrontational as they were leading up to the July 1997 fighting.”
If the two ruling parties fail at reform, opposition leader Sam Rainsy stands to gain, he said. How much peaceful opposition the government allows will define how far democracy has come in Cambodia, experts said.
Kao Kim Hourn also calls as a top priority the integration of the former Khmer Rouge and resistance soldiers. Such integration offers the first real opportunity for peace and stability in three decades.
Others see money and the economy as the most urgent matters.
“They can’t do anything without [money] and that is what they are focusing on right now,” a government insider said of the nation’s leaders.
An international donors meeting in mid-February in Tokyo will be critical in determining how much money Cambodia has to work with over the next year. If donors don’t come through as hoped, Prime Minister Hun Sen is expected to turn to China for more help.
But Paul Matthews, resident coordinator for the UNDP, said this week that it is unhealthy for Cambodia to pin its hopes so heavily on international aid. And donors, he said, are going to demand more for their dollars.
In its annual report released in October, the UNDP, one of the government’s key reform partners, sharply criticized the government for not acting on policy recommendations to replace international aid with local tax revenues.
Kao Kim Hourn concurred: “I would say the donor community will get harder on Cambodia, on issues of corruption, lack of revenue collection, illegal logging.”
Finance Minister Keat Chhon acknowledged as much recently, saying that Cambodia would need to demonstrate it is serious about economic reform to get aid packages.
In addition to doing a better job of collecting revenue, “the government has got to get the economy cranked up,” Matthews said. He said the government needs to focus on creating jobs for the underemployed, and improving education and health services.
Matthews especially sees a disparity in how money is invested. Agriculture is the backbone of the economy, yet more money goes to urban areas. He said that even small investments in the provinces in such areas as irrigation, crop marketing and repair of secondary roads could go a long way toward elevating the living standards of average Cambodians.
The abject poverty of Cambodia is illustrated in rural areas across the country, where many live in thatched-roof huts and barely eke out a living. Even in a rural area near the resort town of Sihanoukville, the politics of Phnom Penh seem far removed. Here, people are concerned about having enough to live on next week, next month, next year. Near a watermelon patch on the edge of Ream National Park, barefoot and underweight children tug at the skirt of their mother, who is too shy to talk about what she wants from the new government.
But 58-year-old farmer Buong Rim has some definite ideas. “The government should pay attention to the agricultural sector, raise the livelihood of the farmers, and protect the forest from destruction,” he said. “Right now, the forest is being destroyed and the fish have dramatically declined.”
Here, farmers complain about the corruption and the suppression of the common people. They complain that the rich in Phnom Penh have become richer, and the poor in the provinces poorer. They complain that the government pays only lip service to their needs.
“They are only taking care of their own pockets,” said one farmer in his 50s who did not want to be named.
About 15 km up the road in Prey Nop district, 27-year-old moto-taxi driver Im Sothy was equally harsh.
“The important thing is that the government should push for economic growth,” he said. “It should not force the people to be away from their lands, not exploit the people and not seize the people’s land…. If the government officials are committed to pushing for economic development, it will be great…. Creating jobs for the people is very important. But in the past years, there was no development. If the corrupt officials still work for the government, the farmers’ livelihoods will be worse.”
Back in Phnom Penh, the new government says it is committed to reform and improving people’s lives.
Prime Minister Hun Sen made that promise on the campaign trail in June, when he outlined his vision for the next government.
“What the people need is a good economy, higher living standards and development,” he said in a televised speech. “I will not agree to be prime minister unless the economy and the people’s living standards are the supreme priority of the next government.”
In late October, Hun Sen outlined a seven-point plan that included improved security, new irrigation projects, a crackdown on illegal logging and broad reforms of tax and judicial systems—all reforms that international donors want to see.
The platform formally issued by the new government also carries a populist tone and is chock-full of promises to create political stability, develop the economy, reform the military and police, establish a state of law, root out corruption and protect the country’s forests.
In recent weeks, the government has made efforts, however small, to show that it is serious about reform. To show it is serious about improving security, the government announced that Cambodians would be issued personal identification cards and family books.
To show it is serious about protecting its forests, the government set ablaze 11 trucks that it said were transporting illegally-seized logs from Snuol Wildlife Sanctuary in Kratie province.
To show it is serious about collecting revenue, the government ordered banks to freeze the assets of telephone companies that owe millions of dollars for unpaid overseas calls.
But in an example of how far Cambodia still has to go in ruling by law, the government is cracking down on the telephone companies in apparent violation of its own investment law.
And, in another striking example, environmental officials this week threatened to punish importers of possible toxic waste into Cambodia but didn’t have a toxic waste law to enforce. Pollution-control standards were to be issued two years ago but never were.
Peter Schier, country representative for the democracy-building Konrad Adenauer Foundation, also said recently it’s a bad sign when the first key government reform is the formation of a Senate. “It’s going against the will of the voters…the Cambodian people during the election did not vote” for this.
Perhaps the most positive signs of the last few weeks have been how smoothly the new government formed—except the Senate—once the summit took place, and the defections of the remnants of the Khmer Rouge.
While the publicly chummy relationship between Hun Sen and Prince Ranariddh might seem astonishing to some—given that it has been only nine months since the prince was put on trial on charges of trying to overthrow Hun Sen—insiders say that the two have developed a new understanding.
Chea Vannath of the Center for Social Development said recently she notes a more relaxed Funcinpec, and “if a partner is more relaxed, it leads to a more trustful coalition.”
Many, however, fear that the new government doesn’t have enough fresh blood to push for true reform and that the “anarchic” elements in some of Cambodia regions can’t be controlled. Rural Cambodia has been described by some as being comprised of military and business fiefdoms, perhaps most starkly illustrated by the country’s illegal logging problems.
Also troublesome to many is the large amount of the budget spent on defense, despite the passing of the Khmer Rouge as a threat. About 30 percent of the budget last year was allocated to defense and security. Figures so far in 1998 show that the military surpassed its budget, while health and social services received just more than half the money allocated to them.
The government official, however, said the government cannot take peace in the north for granted. If the former Khmer Rouge aren’t appeased, there could be complications. “This is still a delicate situation,” the official said.
Matthews of UNDP agrees. He said he used to think the soldiers, including former Khmer Rouge defectors, could merely be given bonuses to join the civil society, but now he said he believes they must be re-educated and put to productive work.
Despite the myriad of challenges, many hold guarded optimism that the government will work earnestly to improve the living standards of Cambodians over the next five years.
“If `you follow closely the evolution since 1992, you see Cambodia moving in the right direction,” Chea Vannath said. “It’s painful, but you cannot get anything free in this world.”
(Additional reporting by Van Roeun and Chris Decherd)
© 1998 – 2013, The Cambodia Daily. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced in print, electronically, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without written permission.