Prime Minister Hun Sen is known for his circuitous and colourful speeches. But one oration he delivered last week continues to draw cautious praise from a segment of the audience that is usually immune to his charms – the opposition.
Optimism is high in the Cambodia National Rescue Party that the past few months of political wheeling and dealing with the ruling Cambodian People’s Party has led to what appears to be increasingly genuine commitment from Prime Minister Hun Sen to try and tackle critical national issues in a bipartisan manner.
Aside from a recent decision to officially recognise minority parties and a minority leader in parliament that can engage in “dialogue” with him, they are also pointing to last Monday’s speech, which is being characterised as unprecedented by many long-time Cambodia watchers.
Speaking to graduating university students in Phnom Penh, minus some of his usual bravado, Hun Sen outlined 12 points of “imbalance” in the Kingdom that have frequently been cited by government critics, and admitted that the number of key problem areas faced by policymakers had expanded under his watch.
These ranged from monetary policy challenges and a trade deficit to weak infrastructure and low wages. The premier focused heavily on the country’s poor human resources, pointing out that while a lack of jobs is causing migration, there remains a shortage of workers in certain places and in certain industries.
While quick, high-quality service provision is desperately needed, Hun Sen continued, “institutions are responding slowly and ineffectively”.
“It is necessary that there are reforms relating to governance [and] relating to the judiciary, [because] they have not responded to the needs,” he said.
Referring to all 12 points as a whole, Hun Sen suggested his CPP and the judiciary, which is considered by observers to be politically subservient, were to blame.
“It is not the legislative body, but it is the executive body and the judiciary framework,” he said.
Senior opposition lawmaker Mu Sochua said it was the first time in her more than 20-year political career that she had heard Hun Sen so candidly “taking into consideration the reality of Cambodia”.
“I think the whole country, [all the] people that have been trying to put across that message feel relieved that the message is getting across,” she said.
“This is a shift in his mindset,” Sochua added, pointing out that many of the points mentioned in the speech had been raised by the opposition days before during a 10-hour debate on the national budget at which the CPP were “very receptive”.
At this time last year, the Cambodia National Rescue Party was leading street rallies calling for Hun Sen to step down, which eventually culminated in the violent dismantling of its protest encampment at Freedom Park and a brutal crackdown on striking garment workers.
With the CNRP having taken its seats in parliament following July’s political deal, thereby removing both the threat of a revolution and the stigma of Cambodia having a one-party assembly, Sochua suggested Hun Sen felt more comfortable to engage with them.
“We are not threatening to overthrow the government, that message is not there anymore. It’s a message of a constructive minority with very clear alternatives,” she said.
Opposition deputy leader Kem Sokha, however, has kept up the rhetoric, saying recently that the CNRP could be back in the streets if its election reform demands are not met.
Such statements have earned him censure from Hun Sen, who threatened last week that he could be voted out as first deputy president of the National Assembly.
But party leader Sam Rainsy, who will soon become minority leader in parliament, said yesterday that last Monday’s speech from Hun Sen “represents an encouraging sign that there could be a desire for dialogue and openness on the part of the government about critical issues facing this country”.
“It could be the basis for an effective and constructive dialogue between the majority and the minority on ways and means to fix those issues of national interest,” he said in an email.
Ouk Serei Sopheak, a freelance consultant on good governance, said that while the speech contained similar elements to others made by Hun Sen since his party’s shock loss of 22 parliamentary seats at last July’s election, it was the first time such a comprehensive roster of economic problems had been laid out.
“It looks like a serious study has been conducted by the government and the note has been recently submitted to the prime minister, and so in terms of the whole package and coming with sincerity like this, it’s new,” he said.
But because the structural issues highlighted will take years to address, the CPP cannot expect to recoup votes at the ballot box until Cambodians see notable changes and improved local service delivery in areas like health, education and infrastructure, Serei Sopheak added.
The last election result, he said, means not just Hun Sen but the whole CPP leadership were becoming “more humble” as the 2017 commune and 2018 national elections loom.
And while the party, through its network, knows the reality of how people feel on the ground, whether the CPP has the political will to deal with their grievances is another matter, he said.
“Now it seems like the back of the CPP leaders is against the wall.… If they want to win the election, they have to respond to these demands, some mentioned by NGOs, some by the CNRP, but already mentioned and demanded by the people themselves.”
San Chey of the Affiliated Network for Social Accountability in East Asia and the Pacific said that with ASEAN integration coming, “the government must accelerate in listening to NGOs and must have a specific plan to respond in time”.
Spokespeople for Hun Sen could not be reached for comment, but Ros Chantrabot, an academic and adviser to the premier, said the CPP was trying to adapt to a globalised world.
“[Hun Sen] wants the CPP to reform to the situation.… It has let more young professionals and intellectuals into the ranks.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY CHARLES ROLLET