When Prime Minister Hun Sen decreed on Monday that no one would resign for their parts in a stampede that killed 351 Cambodians last week, opposition lawmakers and nongovernment groups called foul.
But the premier hardly set a precedent. While acknowledging some security lapses, he said, “nobody should be blamed for an unexpected stampede.”
Though opposition lawmakers, NGOs and crowd control experts all insisted that proper planning could have prevented the disaster, victims and relatives of the dead interviewed yesterday mostly sided with the premier.
“I cannot blame anybody for the death of my daughter because it was an accident,” said Duk Narin, who lost 20-year-old Duk Srey Mom to the stampede.
His was a common response. The most those consulted asked for was money to cover injuries, to defer funeral costs or make up for the loss of a breadwinner.
Observers say most Cambodians are not demanding more because they simply do not believe they can. And though some see modest changes to that attitude, the most those demanding accountability in Cambodia can seem to expect for the moment is that anyone responsible get shuffled into another government job.
When the prime minister ousted Forestry Administration chief Ty Sokhun in April for alleged poor performance in combating illegal logging, he immediately made Mr Sokhun a new undersecretary of state at the Agriculture Ministry. While the move might have cost the former forestry chief some face, it was also a technical promotion. Global Witness called it a farce.
But Mr Sokhun was only the latest in a long list of government officials who have been stripped of their jobs for some infraction only to land another government job, and sometimes even make their way up the career ladder.
After being bumped as forestry chief in 1997 amid complaints from environmental groups about the country’s fast-disappearing forests, the government named Chan Sarun an undersecretary of state at the Agriculture Ministry a few years later. He stepped up the minister in 2001 and remains there today.
The list goes on.
Rural Development Minister Chea Sophara was hastily ousted as governor of Phnom Penh in 2003 following the anti-Thai riots that inflicted millions of dollars worth of damage to the city.
Deputy Prime Minister Ke Kimyan, who also chairs the National Authority for Combating Drugs, headed the country’s armed forced for 10 years until his ouster in 2009, reportedly over dubious land dealings.
When Sam Sotha was sacked in 1999 in a corruption scandal involving foreign donor funds, the government simply created a new agency for him to head, the Cambodian Mine Action Authority.
In the wake of last week’s stampede, government officials, including Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan, defended the practice as a part of the country’s culture.
“In Cambodia it is very difficult to have a culture of accountability,” Koul Panha, who heads the independent Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, said yesterday.
But that was no reason not to try, he added.
“We should create a culture of responsibility,” Mr Panha said. “If nobody is held accountable, how can anybody learn the lesson?”
“We have to learn from other countries that respect the law,” said SRP lawmaker Yim Sovann, whose party has called for the suspension of Phnom Penh governor Kep Chuktema and police chief Touch Naruth in the wake of last week’s stampede.
“If you stay in the old ways of controlling the country, it cannot change,” he said.
But Sok Sam Oeun, head of the Cambodian Defenders Project, a local legal aid group, said the notion of government accountability was generally lacking in Cambodia.
“All these things are new to the Cambodian people…so they do not think they have the rights,” he said.
A two-year joint study by the government and UN Development Program would appear to support this claim. In 2008, the team questioned some 800 families across five provinces about their understanding of accountability and followed up a year later.
Despite a fair year-on-year gain, the average household in 2009 still scored only a 1.8 out of 5, between “don’t know” and “not clear at all.”
“In a nutshell…the people did not understand very well the meaning of accountability,” said Rezaul Karim, a UNDP advisor to the government who helped design the study and analyze the results.
Mr Karim believed their findings had much to do with the fact that “accountability” has no precise equivalent in the Khmer language. He said the team did not explore why, but had some ideas.
“In Cambodia the history of democracy is not very long, it is not deeply rooted. So when it comes to the relationship between the civil society and the government, it is very different than in a developed democracy,” he said. “The idea that the government is accountable to taxpayers is new.”
He said it was also a likely reason, among others, for why officials do not do more to deliver on those expectations. Without more studies, Mr Karim hesitated to draw a direct line between that and the lack of resignations but he said it probably influenced the lack of public services and government transparency at the local level at the very least.
Thanks to the country’s troubled past, “there is not enough or sufficient demand from the people for good governance,” Mr Karim said. “The demand is not there.”
(Additional reporting by Alice Foster and Cheng Sokhorng)