The country cannot afford to further increase the salaries of civil servants such as teachers and members of the armed forces, as to do so would require tax increases—a move that has already sparked protests across Europe, Prime Minister Hun Sen said yesterday.
Speaking at a groundbreaking ceremony for a Chinese-funded section of National Road 5, Mr. Hun Sen said austere fiscal policies in Spain and Greece had left both countries overrun with protests, and that Cambodia needed to focus on infrastructure instead of public sector salaries.
“I would like to tell you that if you increase money for officials in the armed forces and teachers…it would abandon 14 million people who need streets, bridges and irrigation,” the prime minister said.
“How can you deal with that?” he asked.
Speaking with just eight months to go before next year’s national election, Mr. Hun Sen argued that the money simply was not available to pay civil servants more, and that farmers would have to bear the burden by paying taxes—a situation they cannot afford.
“If you need the raise, what is there to do apart from tax the farmers; [it] cannot be avoided. Where else can you get the money?” Mr. Hun Sen asked.
Drawing reference to the political opposition’s election platform that it would, if elected, raise state workers’ salaries by stopping the leakage of state funds from corruption, Mr. Hun Sen said such a policy was too simplistic.
“Some said, to [give pay rises] just get rid of corruption; it’s done,” the prime minister said.
“I would like to ask if there are people who stick signs on their foreheads saying that they are corrupt?” he asked.
Mr. Hun Sen also said Cambodia was unfortunately not in a position to use loans or donor money to pay for salary increases for government workers, as money was needed to improve the country’s infrastructure. Cambodia is also unable to host the 2020 Southeast Asian Games because the funds needed to do so should be spent on developing the country, he said.
At a meeting on public administration reform on September 25, Deputy Prime Minister Sok An said civil servants’ salaries had already increased an average of 540 percent compared to 2001, according to Agence Kampuchea Presse.
As chairman of the Council of Administrative Reform, Mr. An also “vowed” to promote reform in the civil service by improving standards, improving management and reforming the salary system.
Opposition SRP spokesman Yim Sovann said yesterday that pay increases for civil servants were possible, and that the savings in government revenue from stamping out corruption would improve the livelihoods of state workers.
Mr. Sovann said there was no need to impose taxes on farmers, when money from existing taxes, such as road and property tax, could be put toward civil servants earning a decent wage.
“The increase in salary wouldn’t affect farmer’s lives,” he said. “People will have better lives than before. Government officials are living in hard conditions.”
Independent political analyst Chea Vannath said many civil servants were grappling with higher costs of living.
“The concern right now is the low salary of civil servants and, compared to the cost of living, that’s a problem,” she said.
Low salaries also “affects the performance of civil servants, education and public health services,” she said.
“When people pay money to the government, they expect good services to be provided to them,” she added.
(Additional reporting by Lauren Crothers)