Hun Sen’s 6-Hour Reform Promise Met With Yawns

Residents of Phnom Penh on Wednesday expressed boredom and disbelief as Prime Minister Hun Sen passed his previous record-breaking five-hour speech on border demarcation last year with a more than six-hour-long monologue on government reforms he says are planned.

Evoking images of elaborate self-criticism sessions the world over—in which party members publicly admit their failings and commit to change for the sake of the party’s future—Mr. Hun Sen promised to turn a new leaf in the CPP’s method of governing after his party’s surprise losses in the July 28 election.

“We have many mirrors to use if we want to use them and we learn to accept the reality, including a platform for public consultation with the people that must be done regularly to listen to people’s opinion,” Mr. Hun Sen said in his speech, pledging once more to stamp out corruption by starting from the ministerial level and working downward.

“I would like to talk about this issue, and not repeat the problems again and again in this fifth mandate,” he continued in his speech, which was broadcast live on nine television stations.

The image of Mr. Hun Sen on one television at a restaurant near O’Russei market on Wednesday attracted less viewers than a rival screen showing Cartoon Network’s “Adventure Time”—an animated series about the endeavors of a boy and a magic dog—as patrons expressed bewilderment at a speech that was then in its sixth hour.

Chhy Kong, a 41-year-old businessman, said that he had tuned into part of the prime minister’s marathon address but had felt no compelling reason to watch the whole thing.

Mr. Kong explained that it wasn’t the first time Mr. Hun Sen had made such promises in troubled times, citing his many repeated and often quite drastic commitments to end rampant land-grabbing and deforestation in the country.

“If he’s a legitimate prime minister, he needs to prove he can keep these promises to reform,” he said. “What he’s promised before hasn’t even been delivered yet and that’s why some people don’t trust him.”

“It all depends on whether what he said was to serve the nation, or to serve himself and his party,” he added.

Noy Sarom, 34, said that he had watched part of Mr. Hun Sen’s speech in the morning but had turned it off due to boredom.

He said that he believed the nationally televised speech was a run-of-the-mill attempt to garner support for the CPP’s decision to form a one-party government by setting a honey trap of reformist language for opposition supporters.

“It was as normal—but it was absolute nonsense,” Mr. Sarom said of the speech. “He spoke about reforms and…how to solve the problems of the future, but it was just for show.”

But Mr. Sarom added that while such ploys had won the grudging trust of opposition parties after past elections, Cambodia was entering a new era in which such grandiose speeches by the prime minister were no longer as potent.

“He’s an out of date person,” he added. “I don’t know about most Cambodians, but in my group no one believes him.”

Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, emphasized that Mr. Hun Sen’s promises to end corruption did not make for compelling viewing because people had heard them many times before.

Mr. Panha said the new promises would be as credible as the prime minister’s old promises, so long as he insisted on forging ahead in government with only his ruling party sitting in the National Assembly.

“Why doesn’t he compromise and allow the National Assembly to be controlled by the opposition?” he asked.

“If he relies on his own members of parliament from the CPP [to stamp out corruption in the government], there are no checks and balances to ensure these reforms are made.”

Tuk-tuk driver Eang Lay, 51, said that he agreed.

Citing Mr. Hun Sen’s message to corrupt government officials to look themselves in the mirror and then “scrub your body while taking a bath as if your body is plagued by a dirty thing,” Mr. Lay said that the ruling CPP could not be trusted to suddenly rid itself of lucrative graft without the oversight of the opposition CNRP.

“He cannot clean his own back, just like I cannot clean my own back. There has to be another party in there to clean up the corruption,” he said.

“What he said were all great policies, but I don’t believe him or have any hope,” he added.

Um Raman, 73, who said he worked as a civil servant under the regimes of Prince Norodom Sihanouk, Marshall Lon Nol and Mr. Hun Sen’s communist re­gime of the 1980s, said that until different people were put into positions of power, there was little reason to expect any changes from the past two decades of failed promises the CPP has made.

“There will be no reforms because it’s all the same people—all the same people who don’t want change—and [Mr. Hun Sen] is also part of that,” he said.

Even if lower-level authorities heard Mr. Hun Sen’s speech, Mr. Raman explained, the lower levels of the CPP would still be corrupt in order to support the opulent lifestyles of the party’s top leaders.

“It’s impossible. It’s just a show,” he said. “It will never work because they never punish them because [lower-level officials] do it to feed [the upper level] and to make the party strong,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Hul Reaksmey)

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