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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Changing Cambodian governence

Changing Cambodian governence

IN Cambodia there is a proverb "Su Likteuk Kandal Tonle, Kom Oy Pleung Cheas

Pteas", which translated means "It is preferable to suffer on a sinking

boat in the middle of the river than to have your house destroyed by fire".

This proverb still holds true for contemporary Cambodians who mostly depend on luck

for their fortune or who still prefer to keep their money hidden under the pillow

while the world around them is changing dramatically with new technologies, from

mobile phones to the internet. But unless they are prepared to start changing, by

not depending on luck, but taking out insurance instead, when their house is burned

down there will be nothing salvageable, contrary to when a boat is sunk; what is

lost is only what was in the boat to begin with.

In this modern world of this new millennium, Cambodians can not be the exception

for too long. Sooner or later, access to new technologies will be available to most

people if not all. One thing is certain - these technologies will effect everyone,

especially today's government.

The government will encounter new mechanisms of accountability and will have to learn

to effectively tackle old problems such as corruption, social injustice and poverty.

Like the experiences of many of the former communist countries, Cambodia in 1993

was emerging from under the oppressive communist system but, unlike these countries,

Cambodia had experienced some of the worst human rights abuses to have ever taken

place in the region, if not in the world. This country, which had been ruled in anarchy

for at least three decades, ravaged by war and destruction, is beginning to pick

up the pieces through the slow and painful process of reform in all areas - from

the political system of governing, to administration, to judicial and economic reform

- often with the lack of any political will from its current leaders. This lack of

responsible leadership has caused great concern, not just among the donor countries

but also among many Cambodians themselves, including intellects and activists, who

have tried all available means to combat the social problems of poverty, corruption

and the abuse of power.

In the Khmer Rouge regime, Cambodia was put under the control of a handful of people

called 'Angkar' or 'Supreme Organization.' This was followed by more than a decade

of social unrest and a system of impunity which treated ordinary people badly let

alone allowing them to participate in the day-to-day affairs of the nation. Cambodians,

as a result, lost confidence in their own ability to take hold of their own affairs

and this lack of confidence is the major obstacle in the process to encourage the

people's participation.

Cambodia in 1993 produced a constitution, which together with the International Human

Rights Instruments she has signed, have helped to determine the system of government

in the country today. This system supposedly is a pluralistic liberal democracy which

includes parliamentary democracy, constitutional democracy, participatory democracy,

and also legal democracy.

Now if this democracy were translated into concrete actions, good governance would

ensure as a matter of course, and here Governance means "the process by which

we collectively solve our problems and meet our social needs". But in order

to have good governance, those at its core, its leaders and politicians must clearly

understand and uphold the principles of democracy. How can these people coming from

such an oppressive communist background achieve this on their own? They need support

and resources which will enable them to be trained and educated in democratic principles.

In Cambodia, where about 40 per cent of the population live below the poverty line,

the so-called strategy of poverty reduction has negligible effects. This is because

most of the schemes concentrate only on handing out food and clothes, usually targeting

a specific group of people. But for the majority of ordinary people forced out of

their land in the name of development by corrupt government officials, with little

or no compensation, this does not help their situation or address the real issues

of how to stop their exploitation by the rich and the powerful

There is another proverb which provides the best strategy of how to help the poor:

"Do not give the poor fish, instead give them the fishing rod". In reality

we are continuing to give the poor fish because Cambodia's leaders continue to treat

the people as beggars by making them sit and listen to their political speeches for

hours before giving them some rice or clothes.

In addition, aid organizations such as WFP, continue to provide support for its "Food

For Works" program. Under this program the poor become more dependent on handouts

and lose their motivation to do things themselves with dignity, whereas before they

would have taken care of their own family and their community needs by digging the

irrigation ditches for their own rice-farming, and planting different varieties of

vegetables and basically providing for themselves in a sustainable way. Instead,

through the Food for Work program, they wait for the government or international

agencies to give them "payment" for their own work.

Thus we are left with policies and practices which encourage dependency and abuses

of power and, in fact, create more poverty instead of promoting a more "wealth

creation" orientated approach which would have a better chance of generating

hope and help the people improve their

living standards.

Wealth creation would encourage ordinary people, such as the farmer in a rural village,

to invest their property in development projects themselves instead of allowing the

people in power to use the excuse of development to force them out of their lands.

Thus, where their land is used as part of such an investment project, part of the

land value can be paid by the investing company, and the rest can be used to reinvest

in the project, with the farmer now a share-holder in the business.

This would enable the ordinary rural person to generate new income to live on as

well as having a continuous income stream with which to maintain their living standard

and which could also be used to provide improved access to education and health.

The International Institutions, such the World Bank and the UNDP, are not keen to

introduce such straight forward approaches to tackle the global problem of poverty

and poor administration. Why is this? Part of the problem is that it is seen as a

very sensitive area to work in because it alludes to the whole problem of land tenureship

and the fact that many poor nations are often governed by dictatorship or corrupt


So the terminologies which are currently used to describe and to implement the objectives

of projects are often misleading. In fact it may be better to replace 'Good Governance'

and 'Poverty Reduction' with words that more accurately reflect the true meaning

of our intention, such as 'Applied Democracy' and 'Wealth Creation' respectively!

Looking back into Cambodia's recent history of the killing fields; the record of

the human rights abuses in the recent past; the large proportion of the adult population

who are illiterate (more than 60%); and also the belief in Karma by the large majority

of the people to which they attribute their suffering, make things close to impossible

when one is attempting to devise ways of involving Cambodian people to take charge

of their own destiny and actively shape their government's decisions and behaviour.

The sudden increase in population over the last decade together with fewer resources

available for the people to make a living, have caused the people to start becoming

more vocal about their discontent and as soon as they are able to find a reliable

channel to raise their concerns they will do so from whatever walks of life they

come from.

After being elected to the parliament in the last eight years I have been working

seriously to provide this channel for the people. And although in Cambodia there

are few resources available, including a lack of any real legal framework and where

the political will of the country's leaders is still open to corruption, I have learned

there are many ways you can still provide access for the people regardless of the

political environment you are living under, but confidence-building must be the prime

objective, so that the people can feel secure that everything they own and are will

not be destroyed "in the fire", but can be renewed by their own efforts.


- Son Chhay, Member of Parliament



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