On April 10, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen promised that families affected by COVID-19 and the latest lockdowns would, if needed, be eligible to receive 300,000 riels (around $75) from the government in a one-off cash handout. Ten days later, he retracted this promise and said that, instead, households would receive food donations, not money. According to Hun Sen, his volte-face is down to brass tacks. “If it was only 10,000 or 20,000 families, it is not difficult, but now we have tens of thousands of families,” Hun Sen stated on April 20. “If everyone demands money, everyone thinks only of demanding that the state find a solution, but not how to solve it?”
Hun Sen has a recent history with U-turns. In early 2020, he promised $114 per month for furloughed garment workers but then reduced that sum to $70. Moreover, when he made the cash handout promise on April 10, Hun Sen had every indication that things were going to get fundamentally worse, and (unless he made his promise blindly and without consulting any experts) he could have reasonably assumed that the number of people pleading for cash handouts would also rise. On April 10, there were 1,957 active COVID-19 cases in the country. On April 20, when he retracted his promise, there were 4,840. Yet on April 10, some 477 new cases were identified, while the previous day there were 576 new cases. Before that, the highest daily rise in new infections since the pandemic began was just 179 on March 27.
The second question is whether Cambodia can actually afford to pay one-off cash handouts. It surely can, but that might mean taking money from elsewhere. The military budget, perhaps? Hun Sen claimed that if it was just 20,000 families needing relief, it would be affordable. Granted, and it would cost the government around $1.5 million. But what if it were 100,000 families? Well that would be only $7.5 million. For 200,000 families? $15 million. That’s not going to break the bank.
My guess is that Hun Sen is not exactly being honest with his reasons. For starters, he is probably worried his government would not be able to competently handle such a cash relief effort, given the bureaucratic challenges that this would entail for a bureaucracy that has been built on the basis of political loyalty rather than competency. And it’s easier to distribute bags of rice than transfer money into thousands of bank accounts.
More importantly, perhaps Hun Sen knows that cash handouts won’t stop at a one-off offering. This wave of the pandemic is likely to last for several more weeks if not months, and by setting this precedent now, his government would likely be expected to offer more cash handouts in the future. If that is the reasoning, then Hun Sen is probably right that his government cannot afford it.
Rather than cash handouts, Hun Sen said on April 20 that poor households will receive free food parcels. That’s something, at least, but bags of rice are not going to pay off the banks and microfinance lenders who are demanding interest repayments. Nor will they satisfy landlords or electricity companies.
However, what Hun Sen has done is a very subtle but rather devious trick that his government has honed for decades. Rather than Cambodian citizens being given welfare from the state that is funded by their own taxes, which is arguably the right of citizens to claim and the duty of the government to provide, they will now receive charity from a “philanthropic” business elite, who can afterwards claim the moral high ground of helping the country during a crisis. Because poor households will receive donations, not state cash relief, the Cambodian people will be instructed to be grateful to their “superiors.” This is the case of food handouts already being donated. Photos on social media show bags of donated rice branded with messages stating that they are “generous donations” from Hun Sen.
The food relief now promised by Hun Sen, I believe, won’t be paid for by the Cambodia state but by wealthy benefactors of the ruling party. You just have to go onto the Facebook page of the Samdech Techo Voluntary Youth Doctor Association (TYDA) to see how Cambodian system of gift-giving operates. TYDA claims to be an independent organization but it is named after Hun Sen, whose image dons the organization’s material. It was created in 2012 by Hun Sen’s eldest son and heir apparent Hun Manet, now the military chief, and Manet’s wife, Pich Chanmony, a businesswomen with fingers in many pies.
TYDA’s business is tapping wealthy benefactors who have a financial interest in appeasing Hun Manet and the Hun clan, and then redistributing those donations in ways that present them as gifts to the common man from Hun Sen and his family. On April 21 alone, for instance, Prak Sokhonn, the foreign minister, donated money for 100,000 face masks to TYDA. Another government official donated 10 cases of wet wipes. Other prominent business families provided money for mobile bathrooms or hand sanitizers. On previous days, it was mostly food donations. I counted at least 30 donations made on April 21 alone, from private donations of as little as 100,000 riels ($25) up to $5,000. In total, TYDA took around $12,000 in cash donations on April 21 alone, and that doesn’t include the donations of material and food. This isn’t unusual. It happens almost every day.
By my estimate, at least $400,000 was also donated to the Cambodian Red Cross, a ruling party-run organization chaired by Hun Sen’s wife Bun Rany, on April 21. Sift through the Khmer-language edition of Fresh News, the ruling party’s mouthpiece, and almost every other “news” story nowadays is how much a tycoon or businessperson or politician has donated to the ruling party’s numerous associations, and about how meritorious this makes many of those businesspeople who are engaged in some rather controversial business practices.
It amounts to a cynical form of “corporate social responsibility,” in which businesses donate money to organizations run by the ruling political elite on whose patronage those same businesses depend. The ruling party’s associations, in turn, get to decide how to spend this money, as well as burnishing their own propaganda. And, importantly, the ruling party gets to present donations to the masses as an act of charity. For decades, Hun Sen has built a near-monarchist system in which money flows from top to bottom depending on his say-so. And if it does, then it is because of his kind nature, not the Cambodian people receiving what they deserve from their sovereign government.
Where does all this lead? We’ve gotten to the point where TYDA, run by an unelected princeling and military chief, is in effect a quasi-Ministry of Health. Hun Manet is on several committees for pandemic response. By my own estimate of official data, of the 1,277,688 COVID-19 vaccines administered in Cambodia by April 20, TYDA oversaw administration of 141,980 – or 11.1 percent – of them. And of the vaccines administered under the Health Ministry’s purview (since the Defense Ministry gets its own allocation) TYDA has administered 14.4 percent.
And all is the reason, most likely, that Cambodia has now run out of hospital beds. On April 21, the Health Ministry admitted that 2,416 people still do not have beds in hospitals or the hastily-assembled medical facilities. Yet the total number of active cases that day was 4,893. For decades, the government has underinvested in state healthcare services and, instead, relied on “charitable” activity outside of the state by the ruling party and its friends. Rather than investing all money through the Ministry of Health, it is parceled up and distributed amongst the self-serving fiefdoms of the ruling elite: Hun Manet’s TYDA gets a portion; Bun Rany’s Red Cross gets its cut; the Union Youth Federations of Cambodia run by Hun Many, another of Hun Sen’s sons, gets its share. And now ask yourself who has gained from this orgy of “gift-giving.”