By Pou Sovachana
“When people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty,” said former U.S. President Thomas Jefferson.
For almost a decade, Cambodia has achieved remarkable economic growth of almost 10 percent per year. After the global economic crisis in 2008 to 2009, Cambodia’s gross domestic product reached a four-year high of 7.2 percent in 2012, driven mainly by strong consumption, tourism, agriculture and higher inflows of direct investment according to the Asian Development Bank.
The outlook for 2013 is forecast at 7.2 percent and picking up to 7.5 percent next year as recovery in Europe and the U.S. takes hold. In light of this commendable growth and development, poverty persists, inequality widens, corruption remains pervasive and the rule of law is rather an empty content.
The ultimate objective of any meaningful development is to raise the standard of living of the people and end poverty and inequality. For ordinary Cambodians, this high growth has brought hope and a sense of optimism. While the government promises inclusive growth, the benefits have not been evenly distributed and widening inequalities of wealth distribution are sweeping which has resulted in sizeable disparities between the rich and the poor, and between urban and rural areas.
According to a report from the U.N. Capital Development Fund in 2010 on local development, 3.7 million people were estimated to live below the poverty threshold in Cambodia, including 92 percent of the poor residing in the countryside of which only 10 percent own a title to their land.
The controversial enactment of a land-titling program initiated by Prime Minister Hun Sen from June 2012 through May 2013 claims to have distributed more than 125,000 land titles to people in the countryside according to an article in The Cambodia Daily on June 14, 2013.
Turning Cambodia’s sense of hope and optimism into better tangible results, like establishing clear policies on local rural development programs with a more equal model of growth that aim to broaden access to quality education, health care services, land rights, infrastructure and irrigation, are among the most significant challenges facing Cambodia today.
In Cambodia, too many leaders and most influential government officials remain unaccountable to the people. The love of power, extreme corruption at all levels, money, and selfish deeds are the root of all evils. Top leaders are overly obsessed with how they look and undervalue how poor people live and feel. They solve one problem only to create countless others for example by giving land concessions to potential investors for the sake of development, though local people suffer. They live their life based on what they want as opposed to what they can do to help the vulnerable.
Freedom is often a misnamed permission: the license of a wealthy figure to pursue his own interests regardless of the consequences. They put an overemphasis on getting an immediate remedy, instant gratification, while they ignore the problems that got them there in the first place.
The fact that the Cambodian people have courts doesn’t necessarily mean they have justice and egalitarian law. The fact that Cambodia has a functioning government doesn’t automatically mean people have real democracy, especially in regards to freedom of expression and the freedom to gather. The fact that in Cambodia “what powerful people say will be typically right, and what small people say will be typically wrong” is real.
In Cambodia, it is typical for the high-ranking government officials to use their power to punish political opponents and secure impunity for political allies. For instance, Mam Sonando, owner of independent radio station Beehive, was arrested on July 15, 2012, for alleged insurrection, a so-called a secessionist movement in Broma village, Kratie province. He was charged and accused of aiding a separatist movement by the prime minister in his speech on June 26, 2012. According to Amnesty International and right groups and media watchdogs, his arrest was politically motivated and fabricated by the government for a violent eviction of hundreds of families from Broma village, during which a 14-year-old was shot to death.
People can see that when the powerful leader decides that he wants to punish someone, it can be done so quickly. This illustrates a double standard that we see and witness. It is also common practice that military and police officers, and other well connected government officials, who are involved in human rights crimes, such as shooting innocent people, walk free without charges or ever appearing in court.
For example, Chhouk Bundith, the former governor of Bavet City, remains free even though he was found guilty of shooting three female victims on February 20, 2012, in front of Koaway Sport Factory, according to The Cambodia Daily on December 19, 2012. This outcome is a good illustration of how a strong patronage system works in Cambodia. The tragedy of life here is what dies in the hearts and souls of the victims while they live.
The “money is everything” philosophy can be seen and felt everywhere in Cambodia and corruption remains a way of life. For years, it has greased the wheels of the economy and the political landscape in Cambodia.
“Money politics” is the “mother of all corruption.”
Cambodia faces a daunting task in challenging a deeply embedded culture of “money politics.”
Cambodia’s system of political patronage, in which well-connected tycoons are favored for state contracts, has long been viewed as a breeding ground for corruption. Everyone knows that relationships and connections are very important.
According to investors and foreign business leaders, 55 percent of businesses felt that the Anti-Corruption Law, which was implemented in 2010, had no effect in stamping out bribery.
Most businesses are threatened with corruption in all manner of ways, from the custom office to the court system. Only firms with connections to the government get favorable business conditions when paying tax and following regulations.
In Cambodia, the winning party, in terms of media, military, police and economy, systematically controls everything. Crony corruption and political patronage is deeply embedded in Cambodia, largely because of its system of special privileges to politician, especially government contracts that tend to go to well-connected tycoons. While under-the-table payments are a relatively common thing, what multinational companies object to most is the crony corruption that gives special privileges to selected groups with senior government connections, who win plum government projects.
Administrative work, commercial trading and negotiations of social life are settled not based on current laws or rules but often through individual orders or instructions by those in power, mostly high ranking government officials.
This is what I call the rule of one man. With this type of leadership, there is a moral deterioration because the well-connected “oknha” (business tycoons) pursue material gains as freely as they desire.
In Cambodia, there is certainly no evidence of any significant improvement in governance, and if anything the evidence suggests a deterioration, at the very least, in key dimensions such as regulatory quality, rule of law and control of corruption. For years, Transparency International has placed Cambodia as one of the most corrupt nations in the world. In 2012, Cambodia was ranked 157 out 176 countries for corruption.
Corruption costs and erodes revenues. It creates a culture that allows government officials to rationalize stealing from the administration and can lead to financial crisis.
We have to have a moral environment where laws are clean and enforceable so people are afraid to break them. Furthermore, Cambodia’s judicial system is generally recognized to lack legal know-how and political independence.
According to a report issued in September 2010 by U.N. human rights envoy Surya Subedi: “Corruption seems to be widespread at all level of the judiciary.”
Nothing has changed much. I wish we could stand here today and say everything is moving forward. It is not. Our present government doesn’t provide equal treatment and basic needs to the people.
There comes a point where we have to accept that the system is not working. Cambodia needs more than wealth to be prosperous. It needs a change in direction. It needs political reform, an end to corruption and the culture of impunity. It needs to provide better public services ranging from hospitals to schools to roads and governmental forces. It needs to empower its citizens with human rights and freedom of expression. It needs to hold all politicians accountable for people’s wellbeing and security. It needs decent health care for all the people. It needs better schools to educate all its children. It needs to develop a society in which people trust one another. It needs to foster a climate of know how entrepreneurship. It needs business opportunities not only for the wealthier but also for the majority. It needs meaningful development that will benefit the masses instead of the few. Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu expounded: “If you do not change direction, you end up where you are heading.”
None of these elements are achievable without the rule of law and an effective democratic government that put its people first. The laws are there. They are quite detailed and good. And there are significant penalties for breaking the provisions. But there is little implementation and poor enforcement.
The Constitution of Cambodia states everyone is subject to the law and no one, no matter how powerful and important, is above the law.
However, Prime Minister Hun Sen is exceptional.
On June 13, he admitted publicly to breaking the law and he said that it was perfectly acceptable to save Khem Sokha, the opposition leader, when he ordered police not to arrest him for an alleged sexual relationship with a 15-year-old girl according to The Cambodia Daily article: “Hun Sen Defends His Decision to Break The Law” on June 20, 2013.
The government must pay more attention to the needs and welfare of its citizens. The current emphasis on economic development shouldn’t override democratization and human rights.
According to data from rights group Licadho, local and foreign firms now control 3.9 million hectares of land concessions, or more than 22 percent of Cambodia’s total surface area. Almost everyday in the local media, we see reports of clashes between communities and concession holders. The land grabbing issue is the latest example of the state struggling to meet the needs of its citizens, needs as basic as providing clean water, decent housing, health care, social justice and education. One Cambodian woman described good governance as: “A good government is a government that does not abuse the people, that gives the people the land back and that allows people to earn a living.”
I believe if there is any real progress and prosperity, it will come through being, not having. Real change may only come when people get more and better educated and learn to speak their own mind openly without fear of oppression.
Real development and prosperity will flourish, as musician Jimi Hendrix put it, “When the power of love overcomes the love of power.” Then Cambodia will know real peace and harmony.
Finally, if today all the children of Cambodia are provided with primary health care, good nutrition, quality basic education, access to safe drinking water and sanitation, and the protection from neglect, abuse, and violence, 10 years down the road, Cambodian society will be completely different from the direction it is heading today.
About the author: Pou Sovachana is a Phnom Penh-based lecturer.
Note: This article originally appeared in the Cambodia Daily on June 26, 2013.
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