Monday, 9 January 2017

Hun Sen – 15 Years Later…

Fifteen years ago today, the Cambodia Daily published my letter-to-editor, below, discussing many interesting points Hun Sen had made in his in-depth interview with the newspaper. 

Hun Sen then promised reforms, within 10 years, of armed forces, public administration and finance, and judicial system. If by reform he means making all State institutions pander to his every whim, then he is successful. Otherwise, he fails. He has proved he is incapable of building institutions that would serve the nation, not him and his personal interest groups.

Anyhow, he has delivered a lower-middle-income status as promised when Cambodia’s gross national income (GNI) per capital hits $1,070 in 2015. Phnom Penh is flooded with SUVs, high-rise buildings, and infrastructures.

However, given a laissez-faire approach Hun Sen has adopted, the achievement that is inevitable comes with great costs to environment and people’s livelihood: deforestation, sand dredging, river ecosystem and fishery disruptions, insidious evictions, labour exploitations, food poisoning, traffic deaths and congestions, and increasing income inequalities between the well-connected and others.

It is the progress that only 3% of the population World Bank considers prospers, leaving a majority destitute. About 11.2 million people (72%) survive on a maximum daily income of $2.60; among them, 3.1 million struggle with less than $1.26. They would need a Thy Sovantha wonder to get off the Hun Sen poverty trap.

Cambodian people, especially intellectuals who form a pillar of any nation, are fundamentally broken. They coddle Hun Sen’s peace and stability that shoot civilians on the streets, execute, and jail his credible critics at will. Those intellectuals who have benefited from Hun Sen’s corrupt autocracy are at the forefront justifying anything Hun Sen dishes out. Like Hun Sen, they are prepared to pay anything for their peace and personal interests.

Now, Hun Sen says he will hang on for another four decades. Will he? “Yes” is the answer – he will remain premier, even with life support. His followers will keep him in office, or in coma, until they carry him out in a box.

Anyhow, will he achieve by 2030 his aim of an upper-middle-income status that currently requires a GNI per capita of $4,036, and a high-income status (with $12,745 GNI) by 2050?

Unlikely, unless he becomes more ruthless than he has ever been. Between 2010 and 2015 Cambodia’s GNI per capita grows at 9.8% per year. Assuming an annual inflation of 2.50% and population growth of 1.57%, the GNI will need an average yearly increase of 14.6% until 2030. It will be much higher if the status threshold of $4,036 is inflation-adjusted. This means whatever Hun Sen has done to achieve the lower-middle-income status must be escalated for the next target. He must cut down more trees; dredging more sand; begging China for more funds to build infrastructures; exploiting more cheap labour; letting many more of the 72% die from inadequate healthcare and traffic accidents, etc.

Hence, the light at the end of the tunnel Cambodian people have been waiting for is increasingly an oncoming train.

Ung Bun Ang

Concerning the Hun Sen interview (Cambodia Daily, Jan 1-4): Former French president Charles de Gaulle supposedly once said, “Since a politician never believes what he says, he is surprised when others believe him.”

The interview was impressive from a public relations perspective. The prime minister knows the public relations game well. He should earn significant political points for ingratiating himself with King Norodom Sihanouk. With his long record of abusing the King in the past, his sincerity is open to question. But maybe he has changed.

The Cambodia Daily seemed so impressed with his ideas about liberal democracy that it asked him when he developed such thoughts. A cynic would argue that commune elections could have been held much sooner and without enormous pressure from donor countries to do so.

Given the countless human rights violations inflicted upon his opposition, it is difficult to believe the prime minister was really committed to liberal democracy all those years. If it is a newly acquired idea, then the absence of any violence before the elections would support his claims.

According to the prime minister, in the next 10 years, “We need to reform the armed forces, administration, judicial and court system, as well as public finance.”

A skeptic would question whether reform is possible under the current regime, which for 23 years has been based primarily on the culture of violence and corruption. The current crooked characters of those institutions never have been seriously challenged. Any genuine reform would certainly erode the power base of the current regime.

If only the prime minister had a decent track record of matching his words with deeds, then his words in the interview would be music to all ears.

Unfortunately, his record shows he very often talks of principles, but acts in his personal interest. An optimist would say maybe he has changed.

Hun Sen says another Khmer Rouge-type massacre could not occur because “We have the constitution to prevent it.” The jury is still out on whether the current constitution could prevent such catastrophe. It has been ignored, manipulated, and changed to suit the political expediency. I doubt it is worth the paper it is printed on.

The prime minister claims he supported the 1993 elections, and says he was put under house arrest because elements in the CPP wanted to replace him. Yet those same elements accepted him as second prime minister when that position was created to appease those who were prepared to take up arms again. For the prime minister’s claim to be logical, those CPP elements would have favoured someone else for second prime minister.

It is a clever public relations exercise to say the Throne Council will choose the next king. But impartial observers would say the council, like other state instruments, has been stacked with members under the influence of the prime minister. His assumed modesty on this topic is touching.

When the prime minister vows to spend the second half of his life fighting poverty, it seems his immediate priority is to jointly build a golf course with Thailand and Laos. The poor in that region may take some comfort that their leaders will get rid of land mines first. He says he aims to raise the per capita income to $1,000. He may just do it. As he knows from his 23 years’ experience running the country, per capita income can be increased by substantially raising incomes for the rich and powerful.

Overall, a close scrutiny of the prime minister’s interview reveals that, just as it has been for the past 700 years, Cambodians will have to wait for the light at the end of the tunnel, and hope it is not an oncoming train.

Ung Bun Ang
Melbourne, Australia.

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