PM claims success on reforms since near-loss in 2013, but experts say much still to be done

Prime Minister Hun Sen gives a speech to workers in Phnom Penh’s Porsenchey district this morning in which he touted his reform record since the 2013 national elections.
Prime Minister Hun Sen gives a speech to workers in Phnom Penh’s Porsenchey district this morning in which he touted his reform record since the 2013 national elections. Facebook

PM claims success on reforms since near-loss in 2013, but experts say much still to be done

Prime Minister Hun Sen touted his record of reform today, saying the government would push to undertake all reform efforts pledged after the 2013 elections before the expiration of its mandate next year.

However, a look back at reforms over the last five years reveal a decidedly mixed bag, with some observers yesterday expressing doubt that good faith attempts had actually been made to live up to the 2013 pledges.

Chastened by his party’s near loss in the 2013 national elections, that September the prime minister announced a series of reforms to be completed by the next national elections, including tackling corruption, increasing public servants’ wages and reforming the education sector. One year later, he also reached an agreement with the CNRP to reform the National Election Committee as a bipartisan body, and to give more control of National Assembly panels to the opposition.

The reforms the premier highlighted yesterday, however, focused primarily on his audience: more than 14,000 workers from 15 factories in Por Sen Chey district, who are among those who have seen their minimum wage more than double since 2013, when they stood at $80 a month. They are set to rise to $170 next year. Hun Sen said he was “very proud” of his achievements in the garment sector, and of overall poverty reduction efforts.

“This is the effort to urge the policy implementation relating to the social and economic development and to reduce the poverty,” he said. “It is our last effort to finish our ambition that we already launched early in the mandate regarding reforms.”

The premier also lauded achievements in the agriculture sector, saying productivity had risen, leading to greater competition worldwide due to low rice prices.

Prime Minister Hun Sen appears in a selfie after delivering a speech to workers in Phnom Penh this morning.
Prime Minister Hun Sen appears in a selfie after delivering a speech to workers in Phnom Penh this morning. Facebook

Last year, however, farmers and millers found themselves on the brink of a crisis due to two consecutive years of drought, with low paddy rice prices pushing many to sell their crops at a loss. Italy and six other European Union countries, meanwhile, filed a request this month to the European Commission to limit rice imports from Cambodia, claiming that low rice prices are putting Italian rice farmers out of business.

A leaked survey commissioned by the CPP last year found that the price of agricultural goods was the second most important issue for those surveyed, after combating drugs, while the majority of respondents (54 percent) trusted former opposition leader Sam Rainsy more than the prime minister to raise prices of agricultural products.

The September survey also lists “employment and prosperity” as the third most important issue that the government should tackle. Yesterday, Prime Minister Hun Sen again claimed the government would create a bank supporting small and medium enterprises to reduce poverty – an idea introduced last week, seemingly to the surprise of senior economic officials.

San Chey, country director of NGO Affiliated Network for Social Accountability, said many other key issues were still unaddressed, such as widespread corruption, deforestation and land disputes. He argued these needed “more time and political will”.

Transparency International Country Director Preap Kol echoed Chey’s assessment, and said that though some reforms had been implemented – for example the reduction in bribes taken by traffic police, improved budget management, less cheating during exams and efforts at political decentralisation – these were accompanied by developments in the wrong direction.

“[We] also witnessed deterioration of civil society space, freedom of expression and assembly, freedom of media, civil and political rights that are fundamental for a true democracy,” he said in a message. “For a growth of a country like Cambodia to be sustainable, development of economy should ideally go hands in hands with development of social justice and democracy.”

After the 2013 elections and the months of demonstrations that followed, Hun Sen reached a deal with then-opposition leader Sam Rainsy, announcing in an uncharacteristically frank address the need for wide-ranging political and electoral reforms. Many of these, however, have been undermined by recent developments, observers said.

Since 2013, Hun Sen’s government has made a number of unpopular and controversial decisions in the name of “reform”. It passed a trio of judicial laws criticised for placing the courts under the control of the executive branch, a union law blamed for largely silencing Cambodia’s once-robust labour rights movement, an NGO law that has been used to stifle critical voices and amendments to political party and election laws that crippled the nation’s only viable opposition party.

The Law on Political Parties, for example, was amended several times over the last three years, and was used most recently to target Rainsy’s Cambodia National Rescue Party, eventually leading to its dissolution last month.

While the NEC was reformed, its supposed bipartisan nature is now in question after three CNRP appointees resigned in protest and were replaced by two minor party nominees and one “independent” member with close CPP ties.

Some reforms have been praised by the opposition and civil society, including a massive crackdown on corruption associated with high school exit exams and increases to civil servants’ minimum wage, also to combat corruption – a move originally pushed by the CNRP in 2013 and decried by the prime minister at the time as unrealistic.

The government has proved less enthusiastic about combating apparent corruption in other areas, however. A trove of documents recently found at a cockfighting ring operated by Hun Sen’s in-law, for instance, suggest a widespread network of systematic bribery of local and provincial officials. The Anti-Corruption Unit, however, recently shrugged off the matter.

An official investigation into illegal logging in Mondulkiri also found evidence that more than a dozen police, Military Police and army officials allegedly colluded with Vietnamese timber smugglers to the tune of $170,000 in bribes. Still, more than nine months on, none of those involved have been charged, or even fired.

The case points to authorities’ wider difficulties in curbing rampant illegal logging. In spite of a much ballyhooed anti-logging task force convened last year, reports and investigations have found that the flow of illegal timber across the border with Vietnam has largely continued unchecked.

Former opposition lawmaker Ou Chanrath, for his part, said that the premier had shown a lack commitment to eliminating corruption, nepotism and logging. “I have seen nothing [reform]. It’s still the same,” he said.

At a meeting with reporters on Monday, however, Anti-Corruption Unit chief Om Yentieng vowed that reforms would go even further.

“In the next year, maybe in January, Samdech Hun Sen will amend a phrase. Since the beginning, he used the phrase, ‘Look into the mirror, take a bath and clean your body.’ He will add two more words – the fourth is ‘treatment’ and fifth is ‘operation’,” Yentieng said, explaining that this entailed removing violating officials from their positions and bringing them to court if necessary.

Chanrath questioned the validity of the entire saying after the dissolution of the opposition party. “Now that he dissolved the opposition party, who will be his mirror? Who will take a bath and clean the body for them?” he asked. “Dissolving the opposition party is as if they broke the mirror to look at themselves. We no longer show them their mistakes.”

Accountability advocate Chey, meanwhile, said that some decisions seemed to cast doubt on the ACU as an independent institution devoted to reform, particularly a case against rights workers and an election official involving an alleged mistress of former CNRP leader Kem Sokha.

“In the situation that they arrested four Adhoc officials and one [National Election Committee] official, it has harmed the reputation and honour of the ACU,” he said.

“It was mixed with the political winds,” he added. Small-scale corruption cases were often pursued, Chey continued, while “big cases remain quiet”.

In his speech yesterday, though, Hun Sen maintained that there was no such selectivity in implementing reforms.

“The government does not ignore any points in solving problems,” he said.

Updated: 6:45am, Thursday 28 December 2017

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