The day after Prime Minister Hun Sen offered sweeping recommendations to combat smuggling and increase tax revenue, reactions to his proposals were mixed.
At a Phnom Penh seminar on good governance Tuesday, Hun Sen addressed the country’s top officials and pointed to a corrupt tax department and rampant smuggling as two main obstacles to bolstering government coffers.
Kang Chandararot, an economist at the Cambodia Development Resource Institute, lauded the premier’s approach. Rather than advocating large and nebulous reforms, Hun Sen focused on very specific areas to address a nationwide problem, he said.
“There are a lot of indicators that the government will follow up on their promises at the CG meeting,” he said, referring to last week’s Consultative Group meeting, where international donors pledged aid and the government promised reforms.
To tackle smuggling more effectively, Hun Sen said Tuesday he will occasionally exercise direct control over the nation’s military and police, rather than relying on his ministers.
This potentially divisive statement brought subdued reactions from the concerned ministries.
Co-Minister of Defense Tea Banh said Wednesday that Hun Sen’s proposal was a good one.
“There is no law that Prime Minister Hun Sen cannot order the soldiers directly,” he said. “It is very helpful of him.”
The response from the Interior Ministry, which has jurisdiction over the national police, was also resigned.“I do not think the prime minister will permanently control the authorities, he will only take control in special cases,” said Sak Setha, general director of the Interior’s General Department.
Those outside the government were more critical.
“When there is only one person in control of all the power, it is a very dangerous problem for the country,” said opposition party leader Sam Rainsy. “I am afraid that this is his excuse to consolidate his power.”
Hun Sen also stressed that the Tax Department must be revamped and purged of corruption. He fired the department’s director, Hong Tha, in front of all those assembled.
Although some said that reshuffling a fairly minor official within the government was merely a token gesture—Hun Sen said Hong Tha would be given a new position at the Council of Ministers—others said the public display showed the premier’s commitment to change.
“It is a message that it is time to think about national interests, not just our own pockets,” Kang Chandararot said.
But opposition lawmaker Son Chhay said publicly firing a single official was not a constructive approach. Let’s have a realistic or effective system [to fight corruption] in place and let people work independently, not under [Hun Sen’s] order,” Son Chhay suggested. “He cannot be everywhere all the time.”