After Reform Promise, a Return to Statecraft as Usual

In an epic, six-hour address in September, Prime Minister Hun Sen apologized for the government’s many “problems” and promised a more reformist government over the next five years of his rule.

Targeting corruption, deforestation and the lack of transparency across government sectors, the prime minister made clear that the CPP’s continued grip on power would depend on whether his ruling party could commit to stamping out its shortcomings amid a resurgent political opposition.

–News Analysis

“First, you need to use a mirror to look at yourself. Second, you have to take a bath to clean your body,” Mr. Hun Sen said, offering a four-step solution for his ministers to metaphorically rid themselves of whatever stains they may have accumulated.

“Third, you have to scrub your body while bathing if it is plagued by dirty things. Fourth, you have to heal your disease,” Mr. Hun Sen said.

Ministers, he continued, would be forced to stand in front of “many mirrors” in the form of public forums for criticism, meetings with civil society and mandatory appearances before Parliament.

“If this can’t be done by all of you,” Mr. Hun Sen warned, “I can’t wait to die with all of you.”

But, in the months that have followed since Mr. Hun Sen’s dramatic self-criticism speech, there is little indication of a new reformist tendency emerging from his party in the aftermath of its worst election results in 20 years.

The list of poor governance complaints against the government runs impressively long: the shooting deaths of civilians by police officers at two protests, the continued impunity enjoyed by the trigger-happy former governor of Bavet City, Chhouk Bundith, the hastened destruction of Ratanakkiri’s protected forests by illegal loggers, revelations that hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of donor aid money was pocketed by officials at the Ministry of Health and, most recently, the European Community’s sanctioning of Cambodia because the government sold the national ship registry to a private company that has issued national flags to foreign ships that have plundered the high seas.

In his speech in September, and in the five-year policy platform released by the CPP the same week, Mr. Hun Sen also promised again to root out and crush corruption in the name of prolonging the CPP’s hold on government.

On that front, there have been some modest developments: The government’s Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU) last week announced the arrest of a tax collector from Sihanoukville found to have been overcharging for taxes, as well as two staff from the state electricity provider in Mondolkiri province caught pilfering electricity bill money.

However, the detailed report by the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, which revealed that corruption among health officials had compromised some $12 million in grants to the country, was met with statements exonerating the ministry and its officials of any wrongdoing—even if they had pocketed hundreds of thousands of dollars for fixing government bids.

The ACU has not yet investigated the Global Fund report.

Mr. Hun Sen also promised a renewed push against deforestation in his September speech.

The CPP will in this mandate break with decades of sanctioned pillaging of forest by “maintaining forest cover by strengthening forest protection, by way of tighter enforcement of the Law on Forestry [and] the suppression of forest offenses,” the CPP’s reform policy document stated also.

Yet, in recent months, human rights groups and international natural resource monitoring groups have reported a renewed push by illegal loggers, particularly after the July election, to further deforest Ratanakkiri province.

CPP Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said Wednesday that, despite the litany of abuses since the July election, Mr. Hun Sen’s promises of a more liberal CPP government have not been abandoned. (Mr. Siphan on Monday personally sent a newspaper article from the opposition-aligned Moneaksekar Khmer to the Military Court for official investigation because it contained a story alleging the military had helped the CPP steal the July 28 election.)

“Reform is about changing people’s minds like electronics and computers,” Mr. Siphan said of his party’s reform promises.

“We have to educate people to change their mindsets to come together. In the two month period of this two-month-old reform government, the government has been educating people to reform people,” he said.

“The prime minister himself has said to government officials that if you do not change your mindset, you will be punished,” he added.

“So whoever in the public who knows about corruption, please come forward.”

Yet, this is not the first time in the CPP’s recent history that Mr. Hun Sen has made promises for reform before returning to ingrained habits of ruling-party statecraft.

In a push for mass environmental reform in January 1999, a month after convincing the weakened Funcinpec party to support the CPP for a new term in government, Mr. Hun Sen directed the then-newly named military commander-in-chief, General Ke Kim Yan, to end illegal logging “within three months, at the longest.”

The next month, Mr. Hun Sen reiterated that he had taken “a personal interest” in stopping illegal logging, and was “charging all my ministers and military officials to pay maximum attention,” to stop deforestation in the country.

Later that month, then-Environment Minister Mok Mareth announced the scrapping of a sub-decree to create a national committee to monitor unregulated logging.

“We proposed to pass the sub-decree but the Prime Minister said it wasn’t so serious and left the Ministry of Environment to do its work,” Mr. Mareth said in February 1999.

Two years later, in 2001, Mr. Hun Sen pressed on with promises to end deforestation, saying that losing vast tracts of the country’s forests had been his “biggest mistake” of the 1990s.

“I will not make that mistake again,” he vowed.

The plan to end illegal logging was an apparent success, with Mr. Hun Sen declaring to a meeting of Asean environment ministers in Phnom Penh that year that logging in the country had been “eliminated” in the first two years of the CPP’s second term in office.

“Corruption and illegal activities in the forestry sector were eliminated with the implementation of rigorous measures and the full support of [the army], the police [and] the authorities,” he said, crediting the implementation of a “strengthened forest crime monitoring mechanism.”

But, seven months later, Mr. Hun Sen acknowledged continued problems with firms illegally logging, placing a temporary moratorium on all logging concessions.

He again made the promise to stop deforestation.

“If the logging companies do not abide by the order, we will remove their license,” he said at the opening of a road project in Kampot province in December 2001.

“If you dare to [disobey the order] and if I do not then remove your forest concession and close your factory,” he warned concessionaires, “I will cut my own head off.”

According to the study published by the scholarly journal “Science” last month, Cambodia lost nearly 12,600 square km of forest between 2000 and 2012, and gained only 1,100 square km of new forest in return, a net loss of 7.1 percent of the country’s forests.

The study said that only Malaysia, Indonesia, Paraguay and Guatemala had higher rates of deforestation over the 12-year period.

In October last year, Chinese import documents revealed that some 36,000 cubic meters of logs under the “rosewood” category have been recorded entering China from Cambodia between January 2007 and August 2012. Under Cambodia’s Forestry Law, the logging of rosewood is strictly prohibited. Searches for “rosewood” on the Chinese trading website Alibaba revealed agents in Cambodia openly offering to sell the wood to China for prices as high as $35,000 per cubic meter.

Dramatic promises to stamp out corruption also have a storied history.

Mr. Hun Sen, acknowledging failings in good governance during the first electoral mandate between 1993 and 1997, which ended with forces loyal to Mr. Hun Sen defeating forces loyal to then First Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh in street battles in Phnom Penh, promised a fresh start at the start of his second term in 1998.

“Respect for human rights and development—aiming to oppose, weaken and completely end abuses of power and violations of law—will make the law truly the defender of the weak,” Mr. Hun Sen told lawmakers at the National Assembly before the formation of his new government in November 1998.

“If in two years we cannot succeed in any reforms, I will resign as prime minister,” Mr. Hun Sen pledged two months later, in a plea for the return of aid money from foreign donors.

“Before I step down as prime minister, I will sack all those who are corrupt,” he said.

According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index released Tuesday, Cambodia presently ranks a lowly 160 among the 175 listed countries, behind Zimbabwe but slightly ahead of Equatorial Guinea.

The history of such failed but continued promises for reform from Mr. Hun Sen are not surprising, said Carl Thayer, a Southeast Asia expert at the Australian Defense Force Academy in Canberra.

Mr. Thayer said that Mr. Hun Sen and the CPP are well versed in the value of occasional cathartic self-criticism sessions for the survival of authoritarian parties.

Such sessions, however, tend to devolve into the “perfunctory,” with the party simply going through the motions of critique in times of pain for the party, Mr. Thayer said.

“Hun Sen’s promises of eradicating corruption and carrying out reforms are no more than the default position for a party official well versed in the gamesmanship of offering self-criticism in the expectation that there will be no real change,” Mr. Thayer said.

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