The health care system is so unreliable that Prime Minister Hun Sen, like any Cambodian with money, flies abroad for health check-ups. The country’s education system is so weak that student-teacher ratios are as high as 50 to 1 in some provincial primary schools.
Universities are no better, with employers saying recent graduates are so poorly educated they must train them from scratch. Those who are hired are the lucky ones, with hundreds of thousands of young people unable to find any work.
At least 1 million Cambodians have crossed the border to find work as manual laborers in Thailand—despite frequent reports of mistreatment—because that country’s least desirable jobs at least give them a way to support their families.
Phnom Penh, the country’s commercial hub, turns into a flooded concrete swamp for hours when rain hits. Highways are forever being rebuilt—when one is finished, another becomes impassable due to construction cost-cutting.
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.
Since opposition leader Sam Rainsy last year fled the country for fear of arrest, and his deputy, Kem Sokha, locked himself inside the CNRP’s headquarters for the same reason, the ruling party seems to have decided it would be easier to destroy its foes than fix festering problems.
“It’s not because their hands are tied,” said Ou Virak, director of the Future Forum public policy think tank. “They have a lot of power, they have a lot of money and they have better human resources than the opposition. But the problem is that 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,” he said.
Yet 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.
Mr. Hun Sen, who last week traveled to Singapore for a health check, has hit back hard against criticism of the health care sector, defending local doctors earlier this year after medical experts said that nothing short of a “revolution” was needed.
“They looked down on our roughly 20,000 health officials and physicians until some appealed for a physician revolution,” Mr. Hun Sen said of critics during a speech in March. “The majority of our physicians are very ethical, professionally responsible and make sacrifices to save people’s lives.”
The speech did not convince those who had called for a health care overhaul.
“While he says there are only small numbers [of bad doctors], the people who have experienced this say there are plenty,” Mengly Quach, a prominent U.S.-educated medical doctor and businessman, said after the speech.
Mr. Hun Sen’s real views on the country’s health care system have been made evident by his choice not to use it, said Cham Bunthet, an official with the Grassroots Democracy Party.
“Our prime minister trusts Singapore’s health service better. Our rich and middle class trust Thai health care services better. And our low-middle class trust Vietnam’s health care service better,” Mr. Bunthet said.
“Only those who are really poor…trust Cambodian health services.”
Even Cambodia’s education system has few issues in Mr. Hun Sen’s estimation. When Mr. Rainsy said last year that a local university degree was worthless—with some graduates working as motorbike-taxi drivers—the premier lashed out.
“Although these degrees have been looked down upon as valueless degrees, in my eyes, the degrees I hand out today and have handed out previously are very valuable for Cambodian children,” Mr. Hun Sen said during a graduation speech in October, accusing Mr. Rainsy of elitism.
“Do not pardon [those] who insult you by saying the degrees are worthless,” Mr. Hun Sen instructed.
However, Mr. Hun Sen would not be able to count among the “insulted” his own children, who all enjoyed the privilege of foreign educations. His eldest son, Hun Manet, went to university in the U.S. and U.K., while his youngest son, Hun Many, a CPP lawmaker, went to U.S. and Australian universities.
The same can be said for just about all CPP leaders—or for anyone else fortunate enough to count themselves among the country’s elite, with the option of paying for private primary and high schools that keep their children out of state schools.
Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron, who was appointed as a new “reformist” minister after the 2013 national election, has been widely praised for his reforms of the high school exit exam and for raising the salaries of public school teachers.
However, some have complained that the harder work needed to improve the overall quality of public education has still been lacking.
“At the end of the day, it all boils down to a lack of resources,” said Miguel Chanco, lead regional analyst at The Economist’s Intelligence Unit.
“For instance, there are a staggering 45 students for each primary school teacher in Cambodia—well above the likes of the Philippines (31, 2nd highest in ASEAN) and Myanmar (28, 3rd highest),” he said in an email. The figures in some provinces are even worse, by the government’s own admission.
Mr. Chanco said public spending on education has risen under Mr. Chuon Naron’s tenure, but still remained far behind the rest of Asean as a proportion of total public expenditures. And there are few indications that things will change soon, with the CPP’s priorities elsewhere, he said.
“With the government clearly focused on largely maintaining power at the next election cycle in 2017-18, my concern is that Cambodia’s long-term needs (such as on education) will continue to remain low in policymakers’ list of priorities,” he added.
“Overall, the risk of continued government complacency is one that Cambodia cannot afford.”
With elections nearing, the preponderance of frustrations about basic services being aired in coffee shops and on social media should still provide pause for thought for the ruling party, even if it has been chipping away at the opposition CNRP with arrests and other looming legal threats.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan dismissed the suggestion that the privileged lives of government leaders isolated them from the problems being faced by the less fortunate.
“Do you think it’s fair that I drive a Land Cruiser and another guy drives a motorbike? Are you a communist or what?” Mr. Siphan asked. “Cambodia cannot afford good doctors because they were killed by the Khmer Rouge. So what you see is what you get.”
He said CPP leaders with money were entitled to use it as they pleased.
“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, and then I think the health care system will be better.”
For many, patience is wearing thin, said Mr. Virak of the Future Forum.
“I don’t think Hun Sen has what it takes to take Cambodia to the next level,” Mr. Virak said. “He has done an incredible job in the past, with ending the Khmer Rouge, and that kind of politics served them well, but it does not seem to be serving them anymore.”
The next phase of progress requires a clear reform agenda to tackle the persistent problems holding the country back, something Mr. Hun Sen has not provided, he said.
“There’s no war or conflicts, and he doesn’t seem to be able to deal with today’s issues.”