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Hello 2019, hello to new challenges for Cambodia

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Photo taken on Dec. 14, 2017 shows high-rise buildings in Phnom Penh. Cambodia's economy is expected to remain strong in the short-to-mid term despite political concerns, senior officials said, although analysts foresaw current political issues as possibly adversely affecting growth prospects. Xinhua/Sovannara

As we bid farewell to 2018 on Monday, let us look at what 2019 beholds for Cambodia.

First and foremost, it is in almost every Cambodian’s interest to see a well-oiled sub national level administration which is well equipped to deliver the central government’s reform and decentralisation agenda.

Though Prime Minister Hun Sen has given 2020 as the deadline to his cabinet to decentralise and empower the sub national levels of the government, such a move and demand may fail if the sub national level administration does not subscribe to the same aspirations and visions of the central government. As it is, the sub national administration is a mammoth entity. It starts from the 25 governors, down to the three other levels of administrative divisions, the approximately 165 districts, the 1,646 communes at the 3rd level of sub national government and to the more than 14,000 villages as the fourth level of the sub national government.

It is no secret that these four levels of the sub national government have worked independently from the national level due to a lack of control and sanctions, which effectively enabled the heads of these four sub national branches of government to become Little Napoleons, ruling over their little fiefdoms.

This would be the first area of critical importance for the prime minister to tackle and though the Interior Minister had sounded warning bells, if no one bells the cat, the Little Napoleons would continue to roost and destroy the credibility of the central government and erode their political support from the rural hinterland. This is akin to a vicious cancer spreading like wildfire within the organization.

The second area which will be looked at in keen anticipation is a cabinet reshuffle. There are hints and indications are that it might take place in midterm 2020. However, the hopes and aspirations are that it should take place this year so that the new appointees, hopefully young cadres with professional qualifications and experience, and with the right political character and demeanor, will have sufficient time to carry out their tasks and show real-time progress to meet all their key performance indicators. This is vital, as the young blood – through their performance – will help prepare the country to face the 2022 local elections and the 2023 general election.

While on the topic of cabinet reshuffle at the national level, analysts and observers hope that the prime minister, with all his astuteness, will go for a clean sweep, that is shaking up the entire cabinet, irrespective of whether the portfolios have changes or otherwise. It is also hoped that the PM would institute measures to restructure a few institutions and agencies that have become living dinosaurs and white elephants, eliminate unnecessary agencies and ministries, streamline procedures and bureaucratic protocols, and trim down the fat of a bloated bureaucracy.

On the political front, the events and initiatives started in 2018 will continue to shape some of Cambodia’s domestic policy this year. For one, it is hoped that the 118 – if they choose to return to political life in Cambodia – come back home and adhere to existing rules and laws and not make themselves a nuisance by instigating public dissent, disturbing public order or causing political unrest. Tensions could run high and this could easily lead to civil unrest, instead of creating national reconciliation.

Unfortunately, the age of forced regime change is not over and some of the 118 still harbour hopes for an unconstitutional change of government through street protests. Nonetheless, there could be events that might precipitate this – like the revocation of the EBA that could in short order, make thousands of garment workers jobless or even perceived to be as such. These illicit aspirations must be nipped in the bud and political maturity must set in amongst all politicians, both within the ruling party and outside of it to avoid this scenario.

On the question of transparency, the prime minister’s cabinet ministers must be encouraged and even compelled to meet or speak to the press in order to respond to real time questions. They should not be like ostriches hiding their heads in the sand, by avoiding the media, for fear of scrutiny and for fear of making mistakes which may offend the prime minister.

One does not get to eat an omelet without breaking some eggs and this is an inevitable part of structured change, within the government and the CPP. The fear of unravelling party unity must be tackled head on as political patronage and political filially does have its pitfalls and the effects would be felt by none other than the prime minister, who is also the president of the CPP.

The prime minister is starting off the year by having an early meet the press session on January 11. But such a meet is of little consequence if there is no dialogue with the country’s chief executive. The first mandate’s practice of the then second prime minister meeting the press regularly must be reinstated.

The media is the Fourth Estate and it should be allowed to thrive in a conducive manner within the rules laid down on it and not shackled by the very rules that govern it.

The prime minister should also meet, at least two times a year with the four levels of the sub national members in a grand meeting to hear for himself, first hand, the difficulties these sub national leaders face while driving across to them that the national agenda should be enforced strictly at the sub national level as well.

The prime minster should reinstate the private public sector investment forum to hear from investors and the commercial sector the difficulties they face in carrying out their businesses. Ways have to be found to get them to be active participants in developing the country, together with the government, by creating employment.

Going a step further, the prime minister should also develop strategies for meeting the various heads of the business chambers in Cambodia to hear from them their views on what can be done to develop Cambodia even further or better.

Are all these wishful thinking? Probably yes, but then again probably not.

The prime minister’s responsibility is all encompassing and reaches far and wide. Merely adhering to this wish list will consume a lot of his time. But it has to be done for at least two consecutive years. The prime minister must be fully open to all information coming from ground up, and not bottom down, for crucial economic and political decisions to be made in 2019.

This year, in the final analysis, may see yet more political intrigue. But then again if there is none, Cambodia would lose its charm as a country of intrigue and possibilities – good and bad.

Happy New Year 2019.

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