Cambodia: Time for Action, Not Rhetoric

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Cambodia: Time for Action, Not Rhetoric

With demographics changing the electorate, both ruling and opposition parties need to get specific.

Some important themes have emerged from the recent Cambodian general elections – both good and bad. The bad news is that the post-election period was, on some level, more of the same. There were accusations of irregularities and voter fraud, not to mention reports of intimidation and threats to opposition activists in major provinces across the country. Prominent ruling party members issued grim warnings of civil war should the opposition win, while mass demonstrations challenged the flawed election results, which saw Hun Sen confirmed as prime minister this week.

The good news is that political leaders of all stripes recognize the authentic power of young voters. With more than 50% of Cambodia’s population under the age of 25 and 70% under 35, it would be perilous to ignore them. In fact, that would be a surefire way to lose in five years. Unlike their predecessors, a healthy proportion of young Cambodians aren’t paralyzed by fear. They aren’t consumed by the country’s war-torn past; rather, they are gravitating toward the prospect of building an economically vibrant Cambodia. A more good news: young people have turned to social media (Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, among other outlets) to mobilize for change. This is the new status quo.

This is the new Cambodia.

Prime Minister Hun Sen’s youngest son, Hun Many, understood the importance of appealing to youths. But his approach was flawed. Too often the appeal was to the “why” or “what” and not the “how.” How will the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) (or the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), for that matter) create jobs for youths? How will leaders increase wages for civil servants, and how will they actually pay for those increases? Young people don’t care about the “why” or “what.” They already have those answers. The focus ought to be on how opportunities will be created to close the gap. Similar to young millennial-type voters across the globe – young Cambodians aren’t pledging allegiance to the party – but rather to the agenda. In America, we call them Independent voters. If promises are made and then broken to youths, major parties should brace for another power struggle in 2018, with seats going to the next best candidate who delivers on promises. That you most certainly can expect.

A Cambodian Arab Spring?

Alarmists often suggest a possible “Arab Spring” in Cambodia. While this isn’t likely, despite a large disgruntled youth population, there is reason to believe that major shifts will occur in government policies, in phases over the next five years. One obvious change didn’t take very long. It was the recent announcement of a 30% pay raise for about 90,000 low-paid civil servants. That happened just ten days after the election results came out, with more than 20 seats occupied by the ruling party lost to the opposition. Civil servants have typically aligned with the ruling party, so the pay hike was certainly a wake-up call. Another inevitable change will focus on bridging the education-workforce gap for young people. There can be no compromising here if leaders want to stay in power. Disheartened youths are speaking out about this in public forums such as Facebook. How that actually unfolds remains to be seen. But the new government must double down on these policies, now.

As more youths graduate without jobs, patience will wane. We are seeing this happen across the globe, and Cambodia isn’t immune to this. An important trend emerging in the country is the acquisition of two concurrent bachelor’s degrees. Students believe this increases the probability of landing good jobs after college. In reality, though, many young people remain broke and unemployed after graduation, with a growing number believing it’s “who you know” not “what you know” – questioning the true value of a college education. That isn’t a good precedent to set, especially for a country mired in poverty and with a huge ambition to integrate with larger ASEAN economies by 2015. Most college-educated youths live and work in major cities, especially Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. It’s no surprise National Assembly seats (particularly in those provinces) were swept by the CNRP, who made promises of change or b’do. But the CNRP too will need to put their words into action.

Paying for Wage Increases

Change is already happening. The recent announcement by the Finance Ministry to increase wages for civil servants was sparked, in large part, by the Opposition. Months leading up to the election, the CNRP made an even bigger promise of raising wages for civil servants and armed forces from $70 to $250. Promises also were made to increase monthly wages for garment workers from $61 to $150, in addition to pension plans of $10 per month to senior citizens. It’s important to note that the Cambodian government currently provides an annual pay raise of 20% to civil servants and armed forces, but mainly for low-paid workers.

But let’s look more closely at this civil servant wage increase. Where will the government get the money to fund it? Has anyone calculated actual cost? Here’s some simple math to get us started.

Though civil servant data are sparse and typically unreliable, let’s assume that roughly 1.5% of the total population work for the government, a figure supported by a 2003 World Bank report. All things being equal, with growth in civil service employment in proportion to the overall population, we can assume that, in 2013, with a population of 15,205,539 (July 2013 est.), there are 228,083 civil servants in Cambodia today. Now, let’s assume that we raise their wages from $70 to $250 (an increase of $180), and we do that for all 228,083 employees. That would cost the government US$41,054,940. For an aid-dependent country with a weak GDP, it’s not exactly certain how this is going to play out. The intentions are good, though, and this is certainly the direction in which the country needs to head. But, again, leaders need to figure out a plan to achieve lofty goals.

So, the real question is whether the country has the capacity to support radical socioeconomic changes? Despite campaign rhetoric and vague announcements, neither major party proposed real policies to sustain economic growth. It isn’t clear, at least to this writer, how the new government would find the money to pay for important social programs. The CNRP meanwhile proposes to reallocate money – illegally taken from government coffers – to offset costs. They have vowed to “go after” corrupt officials. Though a good idea, that would take years to do. It also isn’t clear how the ruling party will find money to narrow the widening income and opportunity gaps responsible for their waning power.

As an independent analyst and scholar, I’ve been hard on both parties because the Cambodian people deserve better. They’ve been through much over the past century, and there ought to be more than empty promises on the table. But credit should be given where it is due. The CPP deserves recognition for sustaining small but important economic growth over the years, although serious governance changes are in order. The CNRP ought to be praised for pushing against the status quo, fighting for social justice and equality. For example, even though its proposed draft law on minimum wages for garment and state workers was rejected by the National Assembly on April 13, 2013, real steps are being taken to achieve positive change for the people.

The biggest takeaway is this: Before the political bickering even starts, leaders must get serious. They need to figure out a plan to improve current living conditions. There is a clear widening gap between the rich and poor, and a deeper opportunity gap for young people, many of whom are studying and working hard for a better future. The government owes it to the next generation to make things right, to do things better. Yes, Cambodia is overcoming thirty years of war. But it’s also had over twenty years of democracy. The people deserve opportunities, and as a new government is formed, the country deserves continued peace and stability.

Peter Keo is an independent analyst and Cambodia scholar for Global Strategy Asia. He was educated at Harvard University and The University of Chicago, and is completing a doctorate from Columbia University. His research examines post-conflict reconstruction, education, and youth empowerment in fledgling democracies, with a primary focus on US-ASEAN relations. For questions or comments, please reach him at [email protected].