Nearly 4,000 government officials will hit retirement age this year, according to the administrative reform office at the Council of Ministers. Depending on the job, that age may be 55 or 60 or even 65, but whenever it happens they will be ineligible for civil service posts. But whether those who have aged out of the system will actually step down remains to be seen. When civil servants are also political appointees, they can stay in their jobs indefinitely, making the age requirement all but moot.
A royal decree issued earlier this year highlights four high-ranking officials who will retain their positions despite hitting retirement age.
According to the March 22 decree signed by King Norodom Sihamoni, the four are “to be put into retirement as government officials, ranked as great officials in the framework of public position, and retain [their] political position as normal until there is a new decision by the government.”
Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith is on the list, as is Khieu Muth, secretary of state at the Ministry of Environment, Sim Son, secretary of state at the Ministry of Rural Development, and Bun Ny, undersecretary of state for Civil Aviation. The four have titles that distinguish them as political appointments, rather than simply government employees. But the distinction underscores the complexity of a system with a loophole that encourages low-level employees to curry favor with high-ranking officials.
“[Civil servants] will try to strengthen connections with the government and powerful people to make sure they can get a political appointment,” said Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections.
Mr Panha bemoaned circumstances in which officials are unable or unwilling to leave the government.
“Some officials I talk to say they don’t know how to work in open society. They want to stay in the government…. In other countries, when people retire from the government they join civil society, they create foundations. We want them to have this vision for society; unfortunately, they don’t.”
SRP spokesman Yim Sovann suggested an unwillingness to enforce retirement age blocked out both young people and fresh ideas.
“When youth comes in, young ideas also come in,” said Mr Sovann. Some are educated abroad, he said, and carry with them a different outlook. “They bring ideas from the outside.”
It seems unlikely that will happen anytime soon. In February, Prime Minister Hun Sen announced that five municipal and provincial governors—including Phnom Penh governor Kep Chuktema and Siem Reap governor Sou Phirin—were set to retire this year and that he would be giving each a five-year extension.
In his speech, he said he would “extend their retirement until after the 2013 general election.”
“We ended our public civil official duty, so we can’t get work as a governor or director general anymore. But we can retain our position as politician or lawmakers,” explained Mr Son, one of the four singled out in the King’s decree.
“I’m serving based on the law, not because of any political influence,” he added.