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PM Hun Sen is serious about reforms

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Last week saw a flurry of statements, actions and announcements being made by Prime Minister Hun Sen to push up by several notches, the fight against illegal logging, corruption, abuse of uniformed positions and crackdown on illegal gambling.

The announcement on the ban on online gambling caught many in the shady underground industry by surprise and the news was quickly picked up by media agencies throughout the region and world at large. Along with online gambling, arcade gambling was also banned.

Many have fallen victim to these two vices, such as Macao and VoIP scams and a move which is appreciated by many. More importantly, the action reverberated through the illegal gaming industry as they faced the sudden cut in the massive flow of illicit cash into their illegal gambling empire.

About 100 casinos have been built in Sihanoukville over the past two years. The gambling industry has transformed the social and cultural landscape of this coastal region. The loss of the local identity is the greatest loss that Cambodia is facing, due to the uncontrollable influx of investments and foreigners to the region.

The ban of these two vices could in the medium to long run, see a curb on money laundering and probably less victims of scams. According to spamlaws portal, the explosion of the online gaming industry has brought dangers and addictive behaviors. This is why online gaming has become the new “drugware” of choice at the risk of your child’s psychological and physical wellbeing.

The online gambling market is now worth $170 billion a year, according to some estimates. This makes the challenge to eradicate money laundering a huge one – and means the temptation for criminals to use it for that purpose remains equally large. Thus, PM Hun Sen’s stern action is the right one.

The second major announcement to hit the news was the decree to freeze the assets of forest criminals, many of whom are tycoons who amassed huge amounts of wealth in cash, property and influence by carrying out illegal logging, some with the protection of crooked local and senior officials and some with the covert support of uniformed units.

The name and shame campaign of past weeks has netted several big tycoons who were once deemed to be untouchable. Their logging equipment and transport vehicles were blown up and they have been hauled unceremoniously to the courts to face charges.

The Prime Minister’s resolve in this is telling as he has yielded a big stick to take on forest criminals who also veiled considerable influence in the corridors of power. Now the war on illegal logging is not just a buzzword but is being translated into concerted actions on the ground and the public are rejoicing at this.

On the same day, more ripples were sent down the civil service when Ministry of Justice Undersecretary of State, Seng Sovannara was unceremoniously sacked in connection with land grabbing. Earlier in the week, another Undersecretary of State with the Ministry of Agriculture was summoned to court to give evidence on a separate land grabbing case.

On yet another piece of reform which also sent shock waves into the powerful armed forces and police was the directive of Mr. Hun Sen to choose between their military ranks or their Tycoon title of Okhna.

For long, Okhnas were feared for their political and security connections and for some notorious ones, they appeared to be untouchable, especially those in the military and police.

One infamous case of a military Okhna who fell from grace was former tycoon, Okhna Thong Sarath, a two-star general before he was hauled to court for masterminding the murder of a fellow tycoon.

With the country facing headwinds of possible loss of EBA status with the EU and the fallout from the US-led trade war and associated slowing down of the global economy, the reforms undertaken by Prime Minister Hun Sen has now taken on an added fervor and urgency and the masses love it.

In a country like Cambodia, undertaking deep ranging and at times unpopular reforms risks political ramifications in the corridors of power. However, PM Hun Sen is showing his astute political leadership and skills and is now displaying them in full force.

PM Hun Sen has proven to be firm and confident to clean up the party and the government. He is taking certain risks to lead the war against corruption, regardless of factional politics which is prevalent within the party and the government systems.

He understands that corruption and weak institutions are the key threats to political stability.

There is a risk that some foreigners may manipulate the weak governance system to deeply penetrate Cambodian politics through money politics. Separating Oknhas from the military or police networks would help reduce national security risks.

If he succeeds in building a clean and green party and government systems, his legacy will be registered in a golden book. Cambodia’s future relies on the results of reforms, especially in fighting against corruption and building a strong institution and resilient, inclusive society.

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