ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

Cambodia’s COVID-19 Vaccine Boondoggle

The tycoon-funded vaccine drive demonstrates the durability of the patronage state that Hun Sen has built since the 1980s. It also reveals its weaknesses.

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Cambodia’s COVID-19 Vaccine Boondoggle
Credit: Facebook/Samdech Hun Sen

In a recent article, my colleague Sebastian Strangio observed how Cambodia’s ruling party is collecting tens of millions of dollars in donations from tycoons and the business elite to pay for COVID-19 vaccines. As he notes, this reflects the workings of the “neo-patrimonial state” that the party has created since 1979. Indeed, the way Prime Minister Hun Sen wants ordinary Cambodians to see it, Cambodia has a “philanthropic party” not a “welfare state”; that if one takes away the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), the state collapses. The CPP is well-used to playing this game, with numerous schools and hospitals across the country named after the PM and his cronies, supposedly paid for by the party, when in fact many were paid for by aid from foreign governments.

As I have pointed out before, come any serious event the ruling party usually puts on its Janus-faced mask: It pleads of its poverty to foreigners and boasts of its wealth to Cambodians. The message is easily understood: it wants pity and money from foreigners, and fear and respect from locals. And the two aren’t unrelated: It is the money from foreigners that means the CPP can lie about its wealth and prestige. However, today we are seeing something different.

Only the credulous believe that the money raised through private donations is going to purchase enough COVID-19 vaccines, when in fact they will fund doses for only the tiniest percentage of the population. Let us remember that these donations are only going to go towards pre-ordering one million vaccines. Because these are two-dose vaccinations, that’s enough for 500,000 people, so about 3 percent of the Cambodian population. And less remarked upon than the headline-grabbing donors was the fact that Hun Sen told the Health and Finance ministries last week to allocate state money for this first batch. One report, from December 7, finds Hun Sen commenting that state money will go towards partly funding the first batch of one million, therefore indicating that the tens of millions raised by private donations are hardly enough to pay even for the inoculation of just 3 percent of the population.

Interestingly enough, Hun Sen has defined those people who will be first vaccinated as including medical workers, teachers, the armed forces, judicial officials, and urban waste collectors, according to reports. One would like to see a breakdown here, as there are more than 500,000 of these employees. And let’s wait and see whether those tycoons who donated to the party cause will also be at the front of the line to get vaccines.

Also, pay attention to Hun Sen’s language. On several occasions, he’s specifically noted that the first batch of one million vaccines will be offered free-of-charge. Last week, speaking about the first batch, he stated that the government would “give it to our people for free as a first step.” Also of note is his comment that while Cambodia has a population of 16 million, “some 10 million people need vaccines.” Is this an indication that not only might Cambodian people be expected to pay for the next batches of vaccines, but also that the government reckons only around two-thirds of the population needs inoculation?

Instead, the majority of vaccines will be bought using money from either foreign donors or Cambodian taxpayers. The WHO, through its COVAX Advance Market Commitment, has committed to providing vaccines for around 20 percent of Cambodia’s population, so around 3.2 million people. These will arrive by March 2021 at the earliest. The European Union and United States have also provided tens of millions of dollars to Cambodia’s COVID-19 relief funds. And Hun Sen has already told the health and finance ministries to “prepare a budget for the purchase of 2 to 3 million doses for the next phase,” which at best is still only enough for 1.5 million people.

The ordinary Cambodian is being shafted twice: once by the almost feudal system in which wealthy tycoons, many of whom have earned their money from stealing land and paying workers terrible wages, have been presented as the heroes, racing in to the rescue, and then because it will actually be the hard-earned tax money of the Cambodian people that funds the solution.

The average Cambodian could today go onto their smartphone and explore in detail the government’s budget plans for 2021, which will be around $7.6 billion. They would discover, for instance, that the government has budgeted just $384.4 million to the Ministry of Health for 2021. If I were a Cambodian taxpayer, I’d be paying close attention to exactly how the government is going to go about budgeting for the vaccines, and where this money is going to be culled from.

If one wants philanthropy, why didn’t the military (run in practice by Hun Sen’s eldest son, deputy commander-in-chief Hun Manet) come out publicly and state that it doesn’t need all of the $641 million it has been allocated in next year’s budget? It could have said that, say, 5 percent of that budget, so $30 million, could go instead towards purchasing vaccines. Indeed, it doesn’t need $641 million, given that Cambodia doesn’t face any military threat and China generously donates so much to the armed forces already (including water bottles drunk during their joint-drills, if rumors speak truth). And let’s remember this is almost double the amount of money the health ministry will receive next year, and from which the vaccine funds will likely be culled.

One might also inquire why Indonesia has already received 1.2 million batches of the vaccine from China’s Sinovac Biotech, and another 1.8 million are arriving next month, yet Beijing’s apparent best friend, Cambodia, hasn’t yet received anything from China? Surely, given Phnom Penh’s loyalty over the years, much to its own detriment, Beijing could spare a few million vaccines out of solidarity? Granted, Jakarta is paying, but what’s tens of millions of dollars between friends?

In the 2000s it made some sense for Hun Sen to laud his “philanthropic party,” when the government collected very little tax revenue (because it saw no reason to bother the people for this and lacked the competence to do so) and when the country’s GDP was paltry compared with today ($3.6 billion in 2000 compared with $24.5 billion in 2018). Indeed, back in the 2000s, at the height of “neo-patrimonial state” that Strangio describes, this was a sensible way to fund Cambodia’s development. But now the CPP also boasts about creating a germinal welfare state, with a new Social Security Fund for formally employed workers, and it seeks legitimacy by claiming to operate a competent, transparent, and modern state, with a functionary bureaucracy funded through tax revenue, not largess.

Strangio wrote: “the provision of COVID-19 vaccines… will be done in such a way as [to] present them as a gift of Hun Sen, the CPP, and its meshed network of wealthy benefactors.” Yet, this clarion call for donations also reveals Hun Sen’s weakness, an admission that the state he has choke-holded since the 1980s lacks the funds to pay for the security of its own people. This isn’t the case, as the vaccines will have to be paid for with funds from tax revenue or from foreign donations, yet the hard-to-put-away narrative of a “philanthropic party” now takes away from his claims of building a competent, modern state. What we find, in fact, is Hun Sen now pleading poverty to the Cambodian people, as well.