T HE July 5-7 armed confrontation and subsequent orgy of looting has already cost
investors at least $10 million, while loss of confidence in the country could at
the very least delay hundreds of millions earmarked for investment.
Even advisors who have painted a rosy picture of Cambodia in the past offer bleak
assessments. "A stake has been driven through the heart of industrial development,"
said a foreign economist who asked to remain anonymous. "Even in the best scenario,
three garment factories have been looted and six thousand people have left. That
is a strong adverse reaction. For the rest of this year the economy looks grim."
Both government and independent observers agree that the eruption of urban warfare
shook the underpinnings of the Cambodian economy. They also agree that the full extent
of the damage over the medium to long term, depends on what measures the government
takes to promote macroeconomic stability and restore investor confidence.
Analysts concur that Cambodia's nascent industrial sector will bear the brunt of
"The damage is far greater than what was directly caused by fighting and looting.
For three to six months, nobody will touch Cambodia," said Antony Ainsworth,
managing director of International Marketing and Investment Consultants Ltd (IMIC).
"Cambodia attracted $360 million in the first quarter of this year. The country
lost all projects due to be implemented in six months, so the damage will be between
$700-750 million plus the lack of aid the country was gearing up for."
The loudest condemnation from the international community so far has come from the
Americans. The biggest lever the US has on Cambodia is the tacit threat of withdrawing
Most Favored Nation (MFN) status.
The industrial sector, particularly garment manufacturing, depends heavily on unrestricted
access to the US market. "We are worried about MFN, not aid cuts so much. The
stand of the US is of great concern not only for political reasons," said a
Finance Ministry official.
Surprisingly, he claimed not to be concerned about the International Monetary Fund
(IMF) letting disbursements lapse. The Fund allocates money to shore up balance of
payments shortfalls. "The second tranche lapsed in November and we had enough
aid and investment to still have a $28 million surplus in 1996," he said.
The official predicted that the economy will improve after the initial shock - given
aid resumes, MFN agreements remain intact and the government maintains its investment
policies. "If Ung Hout is elected, he will make an announcement saying that
there will be no strategy changes and that the only changes will be in politics."
Outside analysts appear less up-beat. "If the IMF pulls out, others will follow.
At best there is a bubble in the investment pipeline. The government could get the
donors back on-side and hope for a quick disbursement, but there has to be a dramatic
change in the government line which is highly unlikely," said a Western economist.
"The worst case will be a long-term reduction in aid and investment. No matter
what happens it will be worse than before."
As part of continued attempts to chart a deft course in damage control on the international
front, Hun Sen met with about 250 company representatives July 22 at the Council
of Ministers to assuage their fears.
"I know the feeling of investors," he said. "They don't care which
party is in power. The question is of assurances and safety. They must be convinced
that there will be no war in Cambodia. From now on there will be no talk of quotas
in the army or the government."
He harkened to the days when his party ruled by fiat before the UN-sponsored elections
in 1993. "During the State of Cambodia [investors] didn't spend so much,"
he said. "When there were two parties they had to bribe here and there. Ask
Teng Boon Ma how much he bribed to build the Intercontinental Hotel." Sitting
front row center, the tycoon laughed loudly and clapped his hands.
In an effort to soothe investor confidence, the Hun Sen government has formed a subcommittee
to assess the amount of damage to foreign investors caused by the fighting and subsequent
At Post press time, officials could not give an estimate of the claims forwarded
One subcommittee member, who declined to be named, said the government does not have
the money to pay compensation and spoke of extending incentives like tax holidays
to soak up the damage. "Investors should not expect money from the government,"
he says. "The committee is intended to express goodwill and show investors that
[Hun Sen] is a fair player."
One undisputed fact is the need for capital inflows, whether private or public, to
keep the economy afloat.
"When looking at the extent of damage, one must first look at the budget and
the balance of payments situation," said a foreign economist.
"Cambodia has a high current-account deficit. The two ways to pay for that are
private investment and donor funds. There is downward pressure on both, so there
will have to be a contraction of trade. The falling incomes of Cambodians will make
up the contraction."
He argued that even if aid and investment resume quickly, the economy will still
be reeling. "The best-case scenario is a short-term shock on capital inflows,"
he said. "The rest of the year will see low or flat growth. There may be a good
harvest, but the rest of the economy will perform poorly."
While there have been no reports of established companies pulling up stakes, new
investors are waiting to judge security and international reaction before taking
"We haven't seen any cancellations of investment applications, but there are
some suspensions," said Chea Vuthy, information officer at the Cambodia Investment
Board. "Since the fighting, we have received two applications."
Foreign investment in Cambodia during the first three months of the year was double
that of the same period last year, $360.3 million, according to a Cambodia Investment
Board (CIB) report. Half of the approved projects were garment manufacturers.
South Korea was the leading investor. "We are not afraid," says Kwangduk
Yoon commercial attaché of the Korean External Trade Organization. "At
present, projects underway will not be changed, but new projects may delay consideration."
The one argument that economists agree on is that some form of unitary government
would be more attractive to foreign companies.
"It would be easier, I suppose, to make deals with one set of people in the
ministries," said a garment company consultant. "If Hun Sen can guarantee
the security of investments, that's what counts."
"Six months ago, investors saw instability... Now there is only one government,"
said a Finance Ministry official. "Before there were two bosses - an investor
headache. It will be better in terms of stability in the long run."
He ponders, however, whether the new regime has the ability and finesse to convince
international businesses to locate in Cambodia. "Hun Sen has the authority,
but he needs advice - technocrats," he said. "He has the hands, but not
the heads. Most of the people around him are not thinkers."