At the beginning of the previous mandate from 2013 to 2018, Prime Minister Hun Sen delivered a five-hour speech to his new cabinet lineup, in which he made it crystal clear that reform was the main agenda and he expected Ministers to stand up, be accountable and take initiatives.
Then there was an urgency on the part of the cabinet and the line ministries to buck up, given the narrow escape they had at the polls in 2013. But it soon fell into lethargy.
To buck this trend, Mr. Hun Sen embarked on a limited reshuffle, whereby clearly inefficient ministers were moved from one ministry to another. Such move caused disappointment for the energetic, promising, potential cabinet members as well as those waiting in the wings to move up and have a chance at proving themselves as the next generation leaders.
Among the ministries affected then were Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, and Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction. Among these ministries, only the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation has effectively implemented reforms, especially in capacity building and introducing meritocracy.
The CPP genre of not chastising and sidelining long-serving officials completely, soon reared its head and the “inefficient ministers”, instead of being retired, were given other ministerial positions and many of them still underperform some six and half years later. Nepotism and unfair promotion are also widespread across some ministries.
In the current mandate, which started in September 2018, the same mantra has been repeated and many reforms have been announced, from institutional to economic and social welfare reforms. However, the reform results have been limited. The mindset and attitude of some government officials at both the national and local levels has not changed.
The obvious is that some senior political leaders and government officials rely on their patronage for their survival rather than the professionalism and performance. What they need to do is mainly to respond to and obey the order from their patrons.
The performance of the local governments is low. A case in point is the inability of the local government in addressing development, security, social and environment issues in Sihanoukville. Now, the whole image of Sihanoukville has been affected.
The lack of responsibility and accountability of the local officials has put Sihanoukville to a shame for all the wrong reasons and the coup de grace was the mountains of trash which floated in the city after one heavy downpour in April. Chinese investors are also held accountable for the failure to protect the local environment.
Environment Minister Say Sam Al has been recently appointed by the Prime Minister to bring order to Sihanoukville. The challenges for him are huge, some of them probably insurmountable unless the Prime Minister makes an executive decision.
There are various interest groups involved. Hence Mr. Sam Al needs a strong political back up from the Prime Minister to institutionally clean up Sihanoukville. Of course, he needs to keep at bay, the investors who merely speculate on land and property instead of being genuine investors.
It is not only the fault of the Chinese investors who have flooded Sihanoukville and other coastal areas. Minister Sam Al has reached out to the responsible Chinese businessmen who are pouring in money and people into the coastal city. It is almost impossible to differentiate one from the other unless one does a body check to spot tattoos!
The genuine and responsible investors build special economic zones, roads, electricity generation, and construction activities which are not gambling or land grabbing centric. The best scenario for Sihanoukville is to reconsider the number of casinos by attaching conditions such as hotels and green ling areas as well as so that other related business activities that impact local economy, environment and security are not affected.
It is also the workings of the rich and powerful tycoons, national or international, who have their own political and security backers who provide blanket assurances and ensure their Chinese counterparts are deemed “untouchable,” at times to the detriment of the local people and visitors and to the local authorities as well as those at the national level who are part of the problem.
These tycoons, many of whom work in the grey area outside of the reach of the law, do not pay taxes. They tend to undertake businesses which are certainly unsavory to their reputation as investors and tycoons.
These greedy, irresponsible tycoons pose threats to the legitimacy and the survival of the regime. These tycoons do not care about national interest. Politicians should be aware and alert to these tycoons so that national security is not compromised.
All is not lost for Sihanoukville, Minister Sam All could undo many of the wrongs done before his appointment. However, without a strong political and security back-up from the top leaders, he would not be able to rebrand Sihanoukville.
Sihanoukville must become a model coastal city for others to emulate in other coastal cities such as Koh Kong, Kampot, Kep. However, if it fails, the perceived narrative of “Chinese invasion “may well turn out to be true in all the southern coastal cities.
Proper management of the coastal zones defines the image of Cambodia, particularly to prove that Cambodia is not a client state of China.
The local people has lost trust in the local government due to the lack of effective public service delivery, at the provincial, district and commune levels. Therefore, the election of capable and qualified members of commune councils is critical to decentralization as well as public service reforms.
And towards this end, Minister Sam Al and his team, with the political will and support of the Prime Minister, have a critical role to play and achieve the desires results.