Why reforms are needed to save Cambodia’s future

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Prime Minister Hun Sen, who is also president of the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP), attends a ceremony to mark the 66th anniversary of the establishment of the party, at Koh Pich island in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, June 28, 2017. REUTERS/Samrang Pring

The outright election victory of the Cambodian People’s Party, led by Prime Minister Hun Sen, has secured political stability and social order in the Kingdom.

The Prime Minister himself has been traveling across the globe tirelessly to build trade and bilateral ties as well as strengthening the legitimacy of his government. His overseas trips have strengthened Cambodia’s role and status on the international stage.

The main challenge, now, for the new government is to maintain a robust economic growth, particularly to enable the rural poor, the less privileged population, and vulnerable groups to grasp opportunities in the well-performing economy. More importantly, the government must provide job opportunities for its younger workforce. This will set a foundation for the local election in 2022 and general election in 2023.

As it is, the garment and footwear industry faces a nervous week ahead as the EU Parliamentary Commission deliberates the revocation of the EBA (Everything But Arms) scheme, which has enabled Cambodia to export about $6.56 billion worth of products to the EU market in 2017 – all duty-free.

The banned opposition has been behind the push to exert international pressure and the imposition of sanctions on Cambodia with the selfish intention of resurrecting its political life while ignoring the fate of close to 800,000 garment workers whose jobs might be lost if the factories are shuttered due to dwindling overseas orders.

On the Cambodian side, the Ministry of Commerce (MoC) has not taken effective measures to convince the EU and others not to impose sanctions on Cambodia. The MoC should have designed a strategy to negotiate with the EU and others to maintain preferential treatments and more importantly to diversify Cambodia’s economic partners such as entering into free trade agreements with key trading partners.

The MoC would also be equally culpable for the looming fate, which may befall the rice industry in Cambodia for the same reasons as stated earlier. Because of these debacles, the calls of a leadership change within the MoC could be a solution.

As new challenges loom, Prime Minister Hun Sen has to take more concrete, innovative measures to sustain the powerbase of the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and to ensure that reforms remain on track. While the opposition has now been reduced to be a mere paper tiger, the government’s reforms are on top of the agenda. Institutional capacity building and responsible leadership have become even more urgent.

The real power at the sub-national level arises from the 25 governors and they are the ones who cause the government and the prime minister enormous problems within the little kingdoms they have each created in their respective provinces all across the nation.

Their incapacity, non-commitment,

lackadaisical approach, inaptitude, and range of corrupt and illegal activities within each and every province – which is condoned due to silent consent at the sub-national level – could in all likelihood drive people away from the CPP and Prime Minister Hun Sen in droves. Clearly, these people would be venting their frustration, anger and hatred at some local officials due to their underperformance.

At present, reforms at the sub-national level seem stymied due to the intransigence of the 25 sub-national leaders. This in itself seems perilous to the CPP because the rural and provincial hinterlands are their lifeblood.

One solution to this serious situation is for the prime minister to address the National Assembly and the Senate in a joint session to push forward the reform agenda. Acknowledging the truth, finding innovative solutions, allocating resources, and delivering tasks to right leaders are essential for the success of reforms. Such an open debate will generate more ideas and policy inputs for the government.

This could be done twice a year with the Cabinet present, and broadcast live for the whole country to see and hear what the government has achieved for the period, year or past mandate. This will be the direct approach to reach out to rural masses in the provinces.

In addition, the government could also impose and enforce key performance indicators to gauge the performance of sub-national officers in office – from governors all the way down to commune chiefs. A KPI is a measurable value that demonstrates how effectively a sub-national leader is achieving key government objectives and meeting set targets. This information from the KPIs could then be disseminated to all people, irrespective of what their political inclinations are.

By adopting these two simple measures, sub-national leaders may be more conscious of their responsibilities instead of just turning up for some official functions to have their faces appear in the media – a facade to show that their voices are ‘heard’ and they’re there on the ground attending to people’s needs.

In the final analysis, smuggling, cross border illicit activities, illegal logging – especially at the border provinces – and other activities that generate anger and hatred amongst the people, will be reduced and eliminated eventually if Mr Hun Sen were to direct his two children in the military to send their operatives to these areas. These operatives will then observe and report back to the prime minister the spate of illegal activities condoned by the sub-national leaders for swift action to be taken.

Sub-national democratisation and decentralisation of powers will contribute tremendously towards the growth of grassroots democracy in the country. Promoting transparency and accountability at the sub-national level is critical to building public trust in local government, which is the bastion of power for the CPP.

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