Saturday, 12 July 2014

Stay Put

“A country needs effective institutions because it wants to promote justice, rule of law, sustainable growth and development, continuity and smooth transition, all of which are difficult to achieve when the country depends largely on certain individuals.”

Cambodian Economic Association President Heng Dyna, 25 March 2014

“It [running former Waterworks] was something like a family affair, something like a group affair, where the leader of the institution had his followers, a group working for the profit of the group.”

Former Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority Director-General Ek Sonn Chan, 28 October 2009

The Cambodian Economic Association president is absolutely correct about the reason why a country needs effective institutions. Nonetheless, the question is: does the CPP want effective institutions so that the country can have those niceties for all?

Heng Dyna is right again that the country that depends on certain individuals will find it difficult to achieve those niceties. It is indeed almost impossible, especially when building effective institutions in effect means a transfer of power from individuals to institutions, or a curb of individual power.

Thus, what kind of administration does Cambodia has? Or more to the point, has there really been a shift of power from individuals to institutions? Or, has the country been building institutions that are strong enough to hold any individual responsible for their actions?

In fact, it has. It is not as hard as the search for MH370 to discover the Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority (PPWSA) that has transformed from a family or personal interest group affair to the one that serves all well. It has won so many accolades.

Nonetheless, the credit for the success story belongs to political power and will of Funcinpec – not the CPP. The PPWSA reform began in September 1993 with a full backing of the then Phnom Penh governor Chhim Siek Leng, a close confidant of the First Prime Minister of Funcinpec, who was a behind-the-scene promoter and protector of the process. Fresh from the 1993 election upset, many CPP powerbrokers at the time thought the victor was invincible, and were prepared to go along with whatever victorious Funcinpec could come up. That was how and why the then PPWSA director general could withstand all types of resistance and violent threats to the reform and himself personally.

If the CPP were genuinely keen on building strong institutions for the country, why would they not replicate the PPWSA reform that many acknowledge as a success story? They took a full control of the country after winning the 1997 street fight against Funcinpec; nothing has stood between them and whatever they want to do. If there were any serious attempt of institution building, the process and outcomes would be paraded with pride.

The reality is that there has not been any reform beyond gimmick since the PPWSA. If anything, there has been a concerted effort to consolidate individual powers. Commerce Minister Sun Chanthol prides himself on submitting his ministry restructure direct to the CPP prime minister for approval, by-passing the usual Council of Ministers channel; he says it is to relieve the Council’s workload. Cham Prasith takes his family and personal interest group with him to the Ministry of Industry and Handicraft after decades of considerable harvest at the Ministry of Commerce. In the Foreign Affairs turf, Hor Nam Hong, his three sons, and his personal interest group have turned nepotism and family power into an art form and cash. It is hence very likely that the PPWSA success story will remain a one-off wonder for some time yet.

For the CPP prime minister who must protect his personal interests and those of his personal interest groups, he would need strong institutions like a bullet in his head. He needs all to stay put for the sake of his stability. The last thing Hun Sen wants is his zealous and somewhat misguided supporters walking off the lever to build what they believe to be effective institutions for Cambodia.

 Ung Bun Ang


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