In what might have served as a preview of his 2018 stump speech, Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday warned that salary increases promised to civil servants by the political opposition would be achieved through taxing poor farmers’ land.
Speaking at an inauguration ceremony for National Road 41 in Kampong Speu province, he said that his decades-long policy of not taxing land would be reversed by “political opponents” promising wage hikes to public-sector employees and the military.
“Any party that wants to win an election, that party has always made promises about salary [increases]. In my more than 30 years, I have never taken even one cent of taxes on farmland from farmers,” he said. “If Hun Sen does not continue [in power], they would take taxes.”
Though he didn’t name the Cambodia National Rescue Party specifically, the opposition has long made such wage rises a key part of its political platform.
In response, CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann yesterday pointed out that the opposition has already made clear the raises would be funded by taxing massive land concessions doled out by the government to private interests.
“The Cambodia National Rescue Party has already stated clearly there would be no taxing of people’s land. Let the people judge. We won’t touch farmers, because they are just farming to get by and barely have enough,” he said. “We’re looking at the private companies occupying thousands of hectares of state land. We will examine whether they pay enough taxes or not.”
According to Sovann, by properly levying taxes on large land holdings, the promised raises could easily be covered.
But according to political analyst Ou Virak, the CNRP’s numbers “don’t add up” and, while the claim that poor farmers will be taxed may not hold water, Hun Sen is correct to question how they plan to implement such raises.
“You can’t raise the lowest paid civil servants to $250 [per month] without raising the next level and so on. Is someone currently earning $225 going to be paid less than someone at a lower level?” he said. “The costs for this policy will be massive, and the CNRP must provide detailed numbers on how they’ll achieve it.”
Meanwhile, NGO Forum’s executive director Tek Vannara said properly combating the country’s rampant corruption would be the only way of realistically raising funds for such measures. “Only when corruption is eliminated and there are good investors coming to invest in Cambodia can [we] charge [more] taxes,” he said.
Cambodia was ranked jointly with Myanmar at 156 out of 174 nations in Transparency International’s 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY CHARLES PARKINSON