Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Analysis: Hun Sen's reshuffle weighed, found wanting

Analysis: Hun Sen's reshuffle weighed, found wanting

Prime Minister Hun Sen and other senior officials attend a parliamentary session on a ministerial reshuffle at the National Assembly on Monday.
Prime Minister Hun Sen and other senior officials attend a parliamentary session on a ministerial reshuffle at the National Assembly on Monday. Heng Chivoan

Analysis: Hun Sen's reshuffle weighed, found wanting

A host of diplomats and insiders, given a cloak of anonymity in order to speak frankly, were quick to counter government’s claims that the recent shuffling of officials would boost “quality and efficiency”.

“Playing musical chairs,” they told the Post, would do nothing to address the pressing issues crippling the Kingdom’s government: the bloated administration and the often overlapping, redundant ministries and authorities.

Despite government exhortations that the reshuffle, approved by the National Assembly on Monday, would boost efficiency and performance, it’s largely been labelled a cosmetic change.

“So many ministries overlap in terms of competencies . . . For us, that was a bit disappointing, knowing it is a bit like musical chairs,” added one diplomat. “It was a missed opportunity also if one of the goals of the reshuffle was to send a reform message to the electorate.”

At its upper levels, Cambodia’s civil service, which em-ploys some 190,000 people, is indisputably swollen.

Following the reshuffle, which included several new secretaries of state, Cambodia’s executive branch now has almost 240 members: eight deputy prime ministers, 15 senior ministers, 14 ministers and 199 secretaries of state, according to Comfrel. This isn’t counting more than 200 undersecretaries of state, who are appointed by the premier and sit in the middle ground between the bureaucracy and executive.

“It’s a little big,” says Youk Bunna, a secretary of state at the Ministry of Public Function who is pushing public sector reform efforts. “There are some discussions that we should change the system to exclude secretaries of state as not being members of the government, but . . . if we want to do that, we have to amend the constitution.”

To a large extent, the top-heavy royal government is a legacy of the power-sharing years between the ruling Cambodian People’s Party and royalist Funcinpec, said Koul Panha, executive director of government watchdog Comfrel.

“They all wanted their senior politicians to have a role in government and were afraid of the coalition splitting, so they just broadened the government,” Panha said. “When the CPP formed a government [on their own] in 2008, people expected there might be some reform . . . but they did not, they just brought in more CPP people and anyone who defected from the opposition.”

After narrowly scraping through the 2013 elections, Prime Minister Hun Sen vowed change, telling officials to “scrub themselves clean” during a six-hour speech on planned reforms.

The government transferred several agencies run under the aegis of the Council of Ministers to their relevant ministries and combined the state secretariat of civil service, the royal school of administration and the general secretariat of public administrative reform into the Public Function Ministry.

The ministry now works to improve the bureaucracy’s human resource, but cleaning up Cambodia’s bureaucratic body remains a tall order. Twenty-eight ministries form its main limbs, and several authorities, established by various laws and decrees, have grown between.

Anatomy of a reshuffle

In his book Hun Sen’s Cambodia, author and journalist Sebastian Strangio describes the patronage networks that have grown behind the “mirage” of Cambodia’s democratic structure, with money, connections and fidelity the most important currency with which to secure positions, promotions and influence.

“Since the 2013 election, Hun Sen has been forced to confront the essential contradiction of the system: the question of whether it can be reformed without undermining the CPP’s political and financial base,” Strangio said yesterday.

“In line with this, most of the changes so far have been quantitative – more handouts to the poor, more populist decrees. Beyond that, the system has mostly remained unchanged.

With this in mind, the recent reshuffle is very unlikely to trigger a fundamental rethinking of how things operate, though there could be some improvements around the edges.”

One aspect that should be relatively easy to tackle is overlapping responsibilities. Some of the edges between various ministries and their roles appear difficult to distinguish, said Panha, of Comfrel.

He pointed to the shared territory occupied by the ministries for Rural Development, Agriculture and Water Resources in terms of infrastructure and irrigation as one example.

He also questioned the need to separate the Tourism Ministry from the management of the Angkor Archaeological Park (run by the Apsara Authority, which comes under the Council of Ministers).

A second diplomat said consolidating overlapping jurisdictions would considerably help public administration.

“Turf battles between ministries and the absence of effective coordination mechanisms create a lot of unproductive friction,” they said. “The recent reshuffle has not given me the impression that remedying this has been one of the aims.”

Bunna, of the Public Function Ministry, said each ministry’s purview was set out in laws and sub-decrees that detailed roles and functions, and that overlap would be addressed by future inter-ministerial efforts.

He also argued dispersing tasks across separate ministries made it easier to track progress, but allowed that “in this approach, of course, there are some issues of coordination”, noting there were plans for a thorough study of the government’s functions.

However, an international consultant who works in the government and wished to remain anonymous, said an over-reliance on decision-making from the top, and a lack of communication mechanisms for staff to consult their superiors, often stifled efficiency.

“At most ministries, department chiefs are clueless about when their boss is going to look at something,” they said. “In the Ministry of Interior, sometimes you have department chiefs that have to send a letter to their boss to organise a meeting . . . which is just absurd. They don’t speak to their boss for three weeks, so how can there be efficiency if that sort of bureaucracy isn’t cleared up?”

Discussing the reshuffle last month, government spokesman Phay Siphan suggested that more changes were in store, and it was “just the beginning”.

However, as an election approaches, one political observer, who wished to remain anonymous, said he doubted Hun Sen would risk making structural changes that would upset loyalists.

“The time is too short and it’s not the time to make powerful people unhappy . . . The CPP cannot afford to have a serious split close to the election,” they said.

The observer suggested that someone like former Water and Meteorology secretary of state Veng Sakhon, a technocrat who now takes over Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, may have been installed to “observe and learn” the sprawling portfolio and prepare to lead a significant restructure if the CPP wins in 2018.

The observer listed the ministries of Cults and Religion, Planning, and National Assembly and Senate Relations as among those whose functions should be analysed. “The [CPP’s] priority now though is how to make the people see their lives change . . . It means a very strong public relations operation.”

In this vein, Prime Minister Hun Sen has taken to making abrupt policy announcements on Facebook and publicly calling out ministers for being “slow”.

A third capital-based diplomat said he would watch the reshuffle play out before passing judgment. “I want to see how each minister tackles these challenges, [hopefully] without an instruction from the PM on Facebook.”


  • Cambodia on the verge of national tragedy, WHO warns

    The World Health Organisation (WHO) in Cambodia warned that the country had reached another critical point amid a sudden, huge surge in community transmission cases and deaths. “We stand on the brink of a national tragedy because of Covid-19. Despite our best efforts, we are

  • Phnom Penh curfew starts today

    A two-week curfew from 8pm to 5am starts today in Phnom Penh, a day after a sub-decree detailing administrative measures to contain Covid-19 was issued by Prime Minister Hun Sen. “Travelling in Phnom Penh is temporally banned between 8pm and 5am,” said Phnom Penh governor

  • Vaccination open to foreigners in Cambodia

    The Ministry of Health on April 8 issued an announcement on Covid-19 vaccination for foreigners residing and working in Cambodia, directing the Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training and local authorities to register them. Health minister Mam Bun Heng, who is also head of the inter-ministerial

  • Cambodia gears up for muted New Year festival

    The recent curfew and restrictions imposed in the capital and other Covid-19 hotspots were intended to break the chain of transmission, Ministry of Health spokeswoman Or Vandine said as municipal and provincial authorities issued new directives banning certain activities during the upcoming Khmer New Year

  • Culture ministry: Take Tuol Sleng photos down, or else

    The Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts has told Irish photographer Matt Loughrey to take down the photos of Khmer Rouge victims at Tuol Sleng Genocidal Museum which he allegedly colourised and altered to show them smiling. The ministry said Loughrey's work is unacceptable, affecting

  • Covid-19 vaccination now obligatory

    Prime Minister Hun Sen on April 11 issued a sub-decree making Covid-19 vaccination compulsory for individuals unless they have a medical certificate proving they have pre-existing health conditions that prevent them from doing so. «This applies to all members of the armed forces and civil servants