ASEAN Beat | Economy | Society | Southeast Asia

The Bigger Problem Behind Cambodia’s Building Collapses

The recent spate of incidents raises a broader concern about safety standards in the country.

David Hutt
The Bigger Problem Behind Cambodia’s Building Collapses
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On January 3, another multi-story building under construction collapsed in Cambodia, this time in Kep province, killing at least 36 people, including six children. It is the third major building disaster in eight months, after 28 died in Sihanoukville in June 2018 and three in Siem Reap in December. Unsurprisingly, there has been a considerable outpouring of grief and sorrow, but also of anger about why little seems to have improved since last June when the government and Prime Minister Hun Sen promised a widespread inspection of construction safety standards.

Naturally, anger has been directed at the repressive ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and Hun Sen, who marks his 35th year in power this month, making him one of the world’s longest-ruling leaders. Sam Rainsy, the exiled “acting president” of a now-dissolved opposition party, has tried to make political capital by claiming, on his Facebook page, that “Hun Sen is responsible for these recent successive tragedies.” Hun Sen, however, deflected criticism by stating that building collapses “happen elsewhere… including in the United States.” True, but such comments from the prime minister have done little to assuage a public that understands Cambodia has unique problems that must be addressed: widespread corruption; weak government enforcement of laws; unscrupulous businessmen cutting costs with substandard products; and poor worker safety standards.

Heads must roll in the wake of the development. Notably, even the servile Khmer Times, in an editorial dated January 6, even said that “the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction at the central level and its sub-offices at the provincial levels must take full responsibility.”

It should go further, however. Om Yentieng has been head of the Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU) since 2010 and his successes can be noted on the back of a matchbox. If the government is serious about corruption in the construction sector, he would be given the boot and the ACU reformed. There must also be questions about the role of Kun Kim, for instance, who was parachuted in to head the National Committee for Disaster Management in June after the committee’s incumbent head was sacked following the Sihanoukville collapse. In December, the former military chief-of-staff was sanctioned by the U.S. government for corruption involving real estate development in Koh Kong province. Hun Sen has said the Kep governor, Ken Sitha, won’t be sacked after the disaster in his province, unlike the governor of Preah Sihanouk province following the disaster there last year.

The government must also move quickly to ratify a new law on construction standards that was approved by the National Assembly in October but still hasn’t been implemented. One must ask why it has taken so long to do so if Hun Sen reckons that “after the law takes effect, such incidents will be reduced or eliminated.”

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Still, it hardly goes far enough. In most construction sites, workers and their families sleep on site, often on the ground floor. The new law says little about this; though any legislation to ban this practice will either force workers and their families to spend a large part of their measly earnings on accommodation, lead them to sleep rough on the streets or, less likely, require employers to provide accommodation for their workers. A novel though unlikely plan would be for the government to fund dormitories across the cities for construction workers and their families. A national minimum wage for construction workers would also be a start.

But the problem is much bigger than just government regulation; it requires a major rethink of how businesses operate in Cambodia. When I first arrived to live in Phnom Penh in 2014, I remember asking how it was that a six-story building could be raised from the ground in less than three months, as was the case for two properties near my Russian Market home. That’s the way things are done in Cambodia, came the response.

Indeed, for decades there has been a knowing wink-and-nod that rules are there to be broken and corners cut so that turbo-charged economic growth is achieved. The economic growth Cambodia has enjoyed since the 1990s has certainly been impressive, and in large part it is the result of regulation being almost zero and taxation kept at a minimum – and investors knowing that any attempt by the state to regulate or tax could easily be bypassed by offering the right person the right money. There is good reason why Cambodia is routinely ranked one of the most corrupt nations in Asia.

Would Cambodia have attracted the kind of investment, and seen the sort of growth rates and poverty reduction, if it wasn’t for this Wild-West style of capitalism? Probably not; it lacks population, geography, infrastructure and foreign connections enjoyed by neighboring Vietnam and Thailand, for instance. Its economy was in ruins after decades of civil-war and genocide. But while deregulation and a withdrawn state made sense in the 1990s and 2000s, they are becoming less useful as Cambodia now faces a different set of economic needs, which require more assertive and competent state management.

In that vein, it is worth asking if Cambodians can trust the government to carry out a proper audit of construction sites and buildings already completed. If it did, it would most likely discover that the majority of buildings are somewhat unsafe and, then, would be faced with the question of how to respond to its own findings. Better to wait and pray that nothing like it happens again, was probably the government’s thinking after the collapse in Sihanoukville last year. Construction is also a profitable sector, so the government won’t want to cut the inflow of investment that officials can easily skim money off. In the first six months of 2019 the construction sector attracted $3.39 billion in investment, up 57 percent from the same period in 2018.

So, instead, NGOs and civil society – as well as members of the public – must take on this responsibility and pitch in to cultivate a sense of accountability; not just of assessing safety standards of under-construction sites, but also safety standards of those already built and inhabited. That includes fire safety, too. It is worth noting that so far, only under-construction buildings have collapsed. What would be the death toll if a finished and occupied tower block crumbled one night? Cambodia and Cambodians cannot afford to wait to find out.