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Rainsy outlines economic way forward

T OKYO - Cambodian Finance Minister Sam Rainsy appealed for Japanese technical assistance Oct. 11 while conceding that his reformist efforts have made him "enemies" back home.

Rainsy, warmly received by group of finance and policy leaders at a forum sponsored by the Asia Pacific Association of Japan, credited his ministry with fighting corruption and slashing inflation from 100 to 200 percent before last May's polls to 5 percent now.

He noted, however, that this crusade has not endeared him to all Phnom Penhois.

"Reforms sometimes meet strong resistance, and this is the case in Cambodia," he said. "These reforms we are implementing threaten to jeopardize many vested interests. Many people ... have used their [official] positions for their own benefit.

"When we introduce transparency, accountability and the rule of law, many people feel threatened. This is why the finance minister in particular has many enemies.

"Nevertheless, there is a commitment from the government to lead the right policy, and we are confident that we will win."

Rainsy said that of the $1.5 billion in aid that the international community has pledged to Cambodia, only half has been paid.

"That's because we do not have the people-engineers, accountants, lawyers" to absorb the aid. "That's why I'm requesting technical assistance."

"We need vocational training," he explained. "In Cambodia, we have people with five, six, seven years of [higher] education with no job. We have people with just one year of vocational training, and they find an immediate job.

"I'm glad to say that Japan is playing a leading role in rebuilding Cambodia's infrastructure," he said.

But the articulate finance minister cautioned that Cambodia will need time to complete its economic turn around.

"In 1970, before the war broke out in Cambodia, Cambodia enjoyed economic development similar to that of Thailand.

"Gross domestic product per head was similar to that of Thailand. Now Cambodia lags behind Thailand for 30 years. So, we need 30 years to catch up with Thailand."

Rainsy noted that the fight against the Khmer Rouge insurgency continues to drain the public coffers, with defense expenditures eating up half of the national budget. But he said the pressure must be maintained and the Khmer Rouge "pushed away as far as possible."

He added, however, that the key to victory lies in economic opportunity.

"The real battle is not military; the real battle is development," he said. "When you provide hope for the people, there is no reason to fight."

Joined by his wife, Dr Sam Tioulong Saumura, deputy governor of the National Bank of Cambodia, Rainsy pinpointed four areas in which economic reconstruction and development should be focused - agriculture, infrastructure, service industry/tourism and manufacturing.

"Before the war, Cambodia was the word's third largest exporter of rice .. now we are not even self-sufficient,"he said. "It is our priority to become self-sufficient again and to improve the standard of living of our farmers" who make up 85 percent of the population.

Improving the agriculture sector "will not take a lot of money," he said, but requires promoting the use of fertilizer and introducing new types of vegetation.

Regarding the rebuilding of physical and social infrastructure, Rainsy noted that repairs are needed on countless roads, bridges, airports, seaports and energy facilities.

Tourism, he said, "will be a big provider of hard currency." Besides the appeal of the temples of Angkor, "the beaches of Cambodia remind you of the beaches of south Thailand 20 years ago- and look at how south Thailand has developed."

In the industrial sector, Rainsy said, efforts must be made to develop light manufacturing. Most Favored Nation trading status from the United States and access to the European Community will encourage the production of textiles, he said.

"We're also establishing an industrial zone and we expect that some companies will relocate [there], taking advantage of cheap labor," he said.

Rainsy concluded his remarks by pointing out the generous financial benefits and tax holidays offered by the new Investment Law.

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