The Cambodia Daily’s Alex Willemyns excelled himself in his analysis piece, “For Rich CPP Leaders, Reform Not So Vital,” published September 6. The article provides a comprehensive look at social inequality in Cambodia and the government’s failures to introduce meaningful reforms. To précis his points: Cambodia’s health care system is so dire that anyone with money flies abroad for even the most basic treatment; universities turn out uneducated students, after charging a small fortune for tuition; at least a million Cambodians have gone to Thailand to find work as manual laborers; Phnom Penh frequently becomes a “flooded concrete swamp” when it rains; and “highways are forever being rebuilt.” A compelling, if rather depressing, summary. But Willemyns’ article would be worthy of praise if it had only forced the Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan to make the following statements:
“Do you think it’s fair that I drive a Land Cruiser and another guy drives a motorbike? Are you a communist or what?”
“We have a top class of a few people, and a lower class, and a middle class that is expanding, and the middle class is where most tax comes from, so we are patient. We are waiting for the GDP to grow.”
To begin with, it should be noted that Phay Siphan is one of the government’s leading spokesmen, regularly quoted by the English-language media. One, therefore, can see the government’s line of reasoning thusly: the poor have always been with us, as have the rich, and this is the normal order of things. Willemyns also paraphrased Phay Siphan as saying moneyed leaders of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) “were entitled to use [their wealth] as they pleased.”
Another insinuation to be made from Phay Siphan’s remark (as I understand it) is that only a communist would see a problem in one person driving a Land Cruiser and another a motorbike. Besides the fact that one should avoid throwing stones in glass houses (Phay Siphan’s boss joined the communist Khmer Rouge as a young man and took the name Hun Sen as a cadre) it shouldn’t need to be reiterated that it is not only communists, for example, who wish to see the end of a situation where the poor are interned in prisons (how other can the Prey Speu detention centrer be seen?) while the wealthy and powerful (synonymous, of course) are regularly let off after running down motorcyclists with SUVs. The totality of the cleft between the excess of the rich and decrepitude of the poor in Cambodia would require a book’s worth of ink to document. And one only imagines that a Cambodian languishing in an under-resourced hospital or forced to send their children to overcrowded classrooms hardly takes comfort in Phay Siphan’s patience to wait for GDP to grow.
One must concede, however, that some societal and economic progress has been made in recent years: taxation is being overhauled, minimum wages have risen, anti-corruption units have been set up, Phnom Penh has changed dramatically within the last decade, cheating in high schools is intended to be a thing of the past, and so forth. It is a well-quoted statistic that from 2004 and 2011 poverty rates more than halved, from 53 percent to 20.5 percent (though less acknowledged is that a loss of half a dollar a day would throw most back into the poverty bracket). The government has embarked on “a national development plan, with a view to spur economic growth, an efficient and responsive public administration with a credible legal system and promoting good governance, vibrant democracy, and respect for human rights,” Foreign Affairs Ministry Secretary of State Ouch Borith told representatives of the EU in May.
But most commentators would agree that far from enough has been achieved (and would certainly question Ouch’s insistence on “good governance, vibrant democracy, and respect for human rights”). Some members of the government even acknowledge this. In May, Interior Minister Sar Kheng said a “people’s revolution” could take place in Cambodia because of the government’s “own inactive management.” He added: “We should not crack down on other people when we do things wrong; we are not being responsible – this is called injustice.” Still, comments of this heft are a rarity from the CPP, which still makes its living by reminding voters that it was the party that overthrew the Khmer Rouge (partially accurate) and clutched stability from the jaws of barbarity. A little development is better than the past, is the pitch. Show a little gratitude, comes the plea. Any progress made since 1979 has been because of Hun Sen, is another. Be happy with what you’ve been given, the final bargain.
Quoted in Willemyns’ article, Ou Virak, director of the Future Forum public policy think tank, suggested that the CPP has not failed to introduce substantive reforms because “their hands are tied” but because “they cannot come up with a comprehensive strategy to reform… In many ways, it points to a frustrated and confused CPP, because they seem not to know what to do.” However, Willemyns countered that “it is unsurprising that the issues facing Cambodia, which continue to push the country further behind its neighbors, seem to go perpetually unresolved, with CPP leaders often denying they even exist.”
In his novel The Good Soldier Schwiek, the Czech writer Jaroslav Hasek satirized a fictional political party called “The Party for Moderate Progress within the Boundaries of Law.” Might a similar jesting be made of the CPP? The “moderate progress” made in recent decades has only fallen within the boundaries of what is acceptable in “social law.” In other words, the reforms that have taken place have not threatened party hierarchy, corruption and nepotism, the dominance of business cliques, or the free-run given to the wealthy. Or, rather, reforms have not taken place because of these, and most likely, will not.
For genuine progress to take place, these social laws would need to be torn asunder. Those who owe their positions to history and good connections, from politicians to professors, would need to be replaced by those who can competently perform the tasks. Those who grow fat by controversial means would need to be reduced to size. Education would have to be put above connections. Talent before wealth. Criticism of superiority seen as constructive not treasonous. The State separate from the party.
In front of me lies a copy of the Phnom Penh Post and an extensive article describing rampant cheating in the education system (not a new issue, but certainly one that encapsulates the problems at hand: bribery over merit, the buying of “success,” the lack of emphasis put on real education, and ineffectual reforms). To reduce the article’s 3,000-odd words into a few sentences, its author Yesenia Amaro writes that despite increased standards for entering universities, and efforts to reduce cheating in high schools, imposed by educational reform, “getting through university hasn’t changed much at all. Once you’re in – depending on the institution – the chances to cheat are as widespread as ever. And that means at least some of the 250,000 students in higher education don’t have to learn in order to graduate.” What can one infer from this? That despite a semblance of reform, “social laws” reign. In conversation with state high-school teachers, many say anti-cheating measures are only applied to the poor; those with the financial means can circumnavigate them. And university lecturers still speak of informal “no-fail” policies, effectively meaning degrees are bought not earned.
What’s more, Willemyns wrote: “No matter where you look, basic services are in shambles. Yet Mr. Hun Sen’s government, which has prided itself on the ‘development’ it has delivered over 37 years in power, has spent much of this year using its resources to hound and arrest opposition officials and critics.” Certainly true, but one can burrow down further and suggest that some of the government’s most praised reforms are nothing but the “hounding” of the opposition, as well. Following the CPP’s dismal performance at the 2013 election (the CNRP secured only 289,793 votes fewer that the CPP) it was forced into a makeover. In came the Facebook politics of Hun Sen and the semblance that the government was at least listening to its citizens. Also coming in were a number of popular policies first pledged by the CNRP: the minimum wage for garment workers was raised, the taxation system was overhauled, a national health insurance scheme for formally employed workers is to be introduced, and the government has moved to reduce fuel and electricity prices. Thus, one can clearly see than the CPP has been active in appropriating many of the CNRP’s most popular policy promises, and the cynic might say these have only been considered because they are a means of weakening the opposition.
In 1996, the Filipino academic Walden Bello gave a lecture in Phnom Penh where he made the following warning: “While the rampant consumerism that comes with high-speed growth continues to dazzle many in Asia, there is a growing feeling that a process that is accompanied by the decline of agriculture, increasing inequality, and uncontrolled ecological degradation is a recipe for an unliveable future.” He added that governments wanting to head down this road should “ponder carefully the consequences of fast-track capitalism and ask themselves: is this a model worth reproducing?”
The CPP, one would assume, gave no chance to pondering. Instead, it had leapt headfirst into the free market years earlier, backed by Western donors, mandated by the UN transitional authority. One doesn’t wish to rubbish capitalist development in Cambodia, though the form it has taken is often worthy of censure. The academic Simon Springer has produced a fine book on the effects of neoliberalism in Cambodia, Violent Neoliberalism: Development, Discourse, and Dispossession in Cambodia.
It has been well documented, from Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine to Nobel Prize-winner Joseph Stiglitz’s The Price of Inequality, that the hurricane capitalism embarked upon by countries across the world in the 1980s and ‘90s has been a considerable cause of social inequality, and one doesn’t need to rehash the opinions of such authors here. But, as made clear by Springer in his essay Violence, Democracy, and the Neoliberal “Order,” neoliberalism and social laws are often inseparable. Springer wrote that the imperative of neoliberalism is stability and order, two concepts that allow for safe investment and safer profits. Valued as well by what Springer calls Cambodia’s “internal elites,” order and stability fortify the same “social laws” that prevent genuine social reform. “Order and stability preserve an economic system that serves to maintain the power and privilege of indigenous elites at the expense of the poor, which in turn entrenches patron-client relations as neoliberalism positions elites to informally control markets and material reward,” he wrote.
But all this talk raises an important question: would things be different under a different government? The CNRP certainly promises as much. Its platform is chiefly social democratic (if such a term can be applied to Cambodian politics) and pledges to guarantee more freedoms on the one hand and improved services for the poor on the other. However, even if the CPP was to allow the CNRP to take power in the event of an electoral victory (remember that no incumbent has ever left peacefully in Cambodia), it would most likely be forced to work within the confines of the present social laws. The CNRP certainly lacks the strength to overhaul an entire social system that has had three decades to solidify.
What can be done? Perhaps, very little. Or, rather, a moderate amount but very slowly. As long as the “social laws” are reinforced by the government (and society) then genuine change will not be possible. Meanwhile, it will remain the case that money seldom trickles down in Cambodia. Instead, it drips at a glacial pace, and with rather glacial coldness.
It never does any harm, as I assume Willemyns intended by his article, to constantly point out the signs. That it is not an uncommon sight to see amputees literally dragging themselves along the sodden streets of Phnom Penh, for shame. That children are forced to beg for money at traffic lights while facing the possibility of arrest, their crime nothing more than being poor and, thereby, undesired, for shame. That people who are angered by such inequality are described by the government as simply looking down on the country or, worse, disrupting the peace, for shame.
David Hutt is a journalist and writer based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.