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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - RGC counts $601 million blessings

RGC counts $601 million blessings

In another two-week span of sudden moves and unexpected developments, the Hun Sen government took further actions to unravel its sagging coalition partnership, and emerged from the Consultative Group (CG) meeting with a hefty $601-million of pledged international assistance.

The events have triggered speculation about the ambitions of the ruling CPP party, and have some analysts and observers amazed at the massive green light given to the government from the donor community.

"The request was for $513 million, but the pledges amounted to $601 million," said Finance Minister Keat Chhon, in his concluding address to the donor group as CG co-chairman. "Donors have praised the achievements under Prime Minister Hun Sen."

The pledge, a $97 million increase from the last CG meeting in December 2004, was unexpected by some diplomats, who were quick to credit the boost to recent improvements in Cambodia's political climate.

"Even for me it was a surprise that the pledges came out higher than last year," said German Ambassador Pius Fischer, whose country became Cambodia's second-biggest trade partner in 2005. "It shows there have been an improved political framework and social conditions. There was more progress than last year - but some thorny issues have been raised as well."

World Bank Country Director Ian Porter said the meeting established three main areas of improvement to be monitored ahead of next year's CG meeting: the passing of an anti-corruption law, enactment of comprehensive judicial reform and a commitment to natural resource management.

"I'm certain that they are delighted with the $601 million pledge, but these pledges, of course are not written in stone," said US Ambassador Joseph Mussomeli.

"It depends on what they do over the next year and what [US] Congress decides next year. There are some civil society groups that are not happy. They feel like this has all been a ploy and we'll be back to the same old thing in a couple of months with people being arrested and corruption still not resolved. But we need to give the government the benefit of the doubt that they really are making an genuine effort to address political openness and corruption."

A high-ranking official at the Japanese Embassy in Phnom Penh put his country's pledge, which increased by almost one-third this year, in more pragmatic terms.

"As the biggest [individual donor] we have to be prudent," he said. "If not we'll be explaining to our taxpayers why we're spending money on useless projects. We're accountable to our authorities, Parliament and the public."

In an abrupt and highly scrutinized move, the National Assembly (NA) on March 2 amended the Constitution to require just 50 percent plus one - a simple majority - of the NA to form a government. That same day, Hun Sen fired the Co-Minister of National Defense and Co-Minister of Interior, both members of the Funcinpec party. The moves prompted Prince Norodom Ranariddh to resign as NA President on March 3.

The moves, which followed a series of verbal broadsides aimed at the royalist party from Hun Sen, prompted Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL), to express concern for national development and the process of democracy. Panha says the judicial system and armed forces are still under control of the ruling party.

"If there is no redefinition of the balance of the power in both legislative and executive branches there will be great risk when one political party takes control," said Panha. "However, we will wait and see about the reform that the government has promised to the donors."

Funcinpec lawmaker Ly Thuch said party members regretted the recent criticism and resignation of Ranariddh, but would maintain cooperation with the CPP in the name of national stability.

"I acknowledge that Funcinpec is in a difficult situation," Thuch said. "To stop the crisis and restore the party, we need to reorganize the party's structure and give a message of hope, unity and revival so we can motivate our grassroots members."

But some Western diplomats in Phnom Penh defended Hun Sen's moves.

"In reality, [two-thirds majority government] hasn't worked very well; it's been terribly inefficient," Mussomeli said. "[Hun Sen] may have a more efficient and streamlined bureaucracy after this, but he still has to answer to the people. There are serious issues out there like land reform and corruption that the people are fed up with. And now frankly, it's up to the CPP to fix these things."

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