What is supposed to be a remarkable year after a defining landslide polls victory in 2018, the year 2019 comes to an end very much the same way it started – it is merely rhetorical than substantive.
Part of the year was dominated by amateurish political gamesmanship between the opposition leader Sam Rainsy and his nemesis for almost three decades, Prime Minister Hun Sen.
It culminated on Nov 9, when Sam Rainsy had proudly and openly claimed that he would march into Cambodia from Thailand, with thousands of Cambodian workers – as a human shield – to “rescue” Cambodia and save it from so-called dictatorship.
It went to the extent that he even offered financial incentives to provoke the armed forces to stage a rebellion or even a coup to achieve his waning political ambitions and was willing to sacrifice lives and limbs to try to gain power through regime change under the form of people’s power. He is the man who must be held accountable for the looming Everything but Arms (EBA) trade deal revocation by the EU, thus effectively putting pressure on hundreds of thousands of garment and footwear manufacturing workers who may be out of a job within a year if the EU refuses to accept Cambodia’s explanations and goodwill.
Unacceptable double standards
Put bluntly, the EU will be playing into Rainsy’s hands if it indeed revokes Cambodia’s EBA status on flimsy grounds such as democracy and human rights when its neighbour, which has worse human rights and is less democratic than Cambodia, was rewarded with a free trade agreement. Such double standards are not acceptable.
Imagine this scenario. The EU revokes the EBA status, fully or partially. Exports to the EU from Cambodia will suffer because of pricing and margins. As a direct result, garment and footwear manufacturers would find it hard to maintain their production level if orders fall or stop because of pricing.
When they, the factories, are forced to downsize or close, the workers will be out of jobs. Their working environment had improved drastically from 2013 where they were receiving approximately $150 per month as minimum wage to $200 per month in 2020 with various other perks.
The benefits given to these two industries were so attractive that other industries started demanding similar minimum wages and benefits, putting pressure on Cambodia’s competitiveness, along with its shortage of skilled labour and infrastructure limitations such as lack of power supply and so forth.
When these factories close one by one, the workers would have little options, because there are no other industries that can absorb them, even partially. When money runs dry, they will take to the streets and this will be the breeding grounds for the start of regime change, which fits into Rainsy’s plan.
Under this scenario, it would be fair to label the EU as provocateur of regime change in Cambodia by weaponsing a trade instrument into a political tool to exert undue pressure on a sovereign state which could result in civil unrest of a magnitude that may easily spiral out of control, especially if hidden hands are at play, along with foreign trained agents provocateur.
The government has been trying hard to counter rumours such as nonexistent naval bases, debt trap with the Chinese and so forth. However, it has also undertaken major reforms such as banning online gaming which at one point in time was driving the economy in Preah Sihanoukville along with mafia territorial fights and violence.
Many bilateral agreements on trade and other commerce related benefits were signed with numerous eastern European countries and also with the EU member nations, many of which have pledged to continue aid and trade with Cambodia.
Even President Trump had reached out to Prime Minister Hun Sen with the magic words: No regime change agenda to kick-start the normalisation of Cambodia and the United states bilateral relationship. Although time will tell how far the Cambodia-US bilateral relations positively evolve.
Public sector reforms have slowed down with a lot of noise but with little tangible results on the ground, not through lack of effort by the government at the central level but rather because of lack of capacity or care by the little Napoleons who run the sub-national machinery and administration. Now there are efforts to improve the quality of service delivery at the local level, hopefully it is not just a policy rhetoric.
There have been several lessons learned for Cambodia this year. Chief among these is to have more substantive policy and concrete reforms, more tact in dealing with contentious issues such as Sam Rainsy’s return, Kem Sokha’s prolonged trial, more evidence-based decision-making and more quiet diplomacy.
It is time for Prime Minister Hun Sen to take stock of what his administration has achieved against the promises made and take concrete measures to materialise what he calls an “institutional surgery”. He should have been more courageous to deal with corrupt officials.
Upon reflection, a decisive move must be taken to shake up the cabinet without fear or favour or compassion and adopt harsher action against incompetent or recalcitrant government officials and political leaders at both the national and sub-national levels.
These, if undertaken in 2020, could set Cambodia on a new path for a better Cambodia. Prime Minister Hun Sen must exert full political, personal and executive will. If he could not deliver reforms under his leadership, the future generation of the leadership of the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) will not be able to achieve more given the future CPP leaders will not have the same level of political charisma and powerbase as Mr Hun Sen.
If Mr Hun Sen misses the opportunity to build a clean and smart government before the general election in 2023, the future of Cambodia will be rather bleak. It must be noted that reforms define the future of the country. The future of the CPP depends on how the leadership will be transformed from a conservative to a more progressive and clean leadership. Singapore’s People’s Action Party (PAP) should be the role model for the CPP, obviously not Malaysia’s United Malays National Organisation.