Prime Minister Hun Sen opened a two-day conference on good governance Tuesday with an emphatic commitment to reform and a warning of the consequences of failing to do so.
“The most dangerous time bomb on the Cambodian road to economic development is the lack of good governance,’’ he told an audience of about 200 officials, diplomats, bankers and aid workers at the Royal School of Administration.
In a 35-minute address, Hun Sen vowed to work to promote democracy, root out government corruption, eliminate poverty and support sustainable development.
Cambodia has weathered rough times in recent years, he said, but the nation’s status is improving in the world community and the economy is poised to follow—if investors can be convinced their money is safe here.
Hun Sen said studies show investors and donor countries are far more willing to invest in countries that make serious reform efforts. Cambodia is working toward that goal on many fronts, he said, including reforming the civil service and the courts, and raising officials’ salaries so they will be less tempted by bribery.
“We have achieved encouraging results,’’ he said, while further progress will require “change in the morality of the whole society.’’
But several speakers at the National Symposium on Democracy and Good Governance, which concludes today, raised a cautionary flag: reform may be easier said than done.
An opposition party official characterized Hun Sen’s speech as merely a play for money in advance of the annual major donors meeting in May in Paris.
“The government is simply deceiving the public by trying to make these shows” of reform, Kong Korm, vice president of the Sam Rainsy Party, was quoted as saying by The Associated Press. “[Hun Sen’s speech] merely serves the purpose of impressing donors in Paris.”
Cambodia is appealing for $536 million from donors at the upcoming Consultative Group meeting, up from pledges of $470 million at the last CG meeting in February 1999.
The symposium was sponsored by the Office of the Council of Ministers, the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and the Asian Development Bank.
Peter Koppinger, country representative of Konrad Adenauer, a German pro-democracy foundation, said his organization believes Cambodia is sincere in its desire for reform, but that it will not be easy to achieve.
“There is the danger that the people who are hungry for democracy after horrible years of war and many years of centralized state structures will only get the aroma of democracy, but no real food on their daily plates,’’ he said.
People who have little influence with the state when it comes to their own living conditions may some day react in anger, refusing to pay taxes or even respect to the state, he said.
Urooj Malik, the resident representative of the ADB, said the experience of nations throughout Asia has shown there is no single best path to good government.
Cambodia, he said, is clearly making progress. “The war is over and the Khmer Rouge are no longer a threat,’’ he said.
Yoshihiro Iwasaki, head of the regional monitoring unit of the ADB, said combating corruption has become a bigger issue worldwide since the end of the Cold War. Donor nations are spending less while expecting more results for their money, he said.
And in country after country, the citizenry is less willing to tolerate abuses, he said. The press is more free and reports more fully on corruption; new, global NGOs devoted to fighting corruption keep the issue in focus.
In an afternoon panel, representatives of donor nations praised Cambodia for the progress it has made—but reiterated much more must be done.
Eiji Yamamoto, minister counselor at the Embassy of Japan, said his country “regards good governance as one of the very important elements in achieving sustainable development in recipient countries.’’
Cambodia continues to struggle with an inadequate judicial system, too few laws governing business, and a civil service that is woefully underpaid, he said.
Flora Leibech, senior governance specialist at the Canadian Embassy, said that based on the current climate and the goals outlined at the symposium, her country “sees an opportunity to expand bilateral support.’’
First Secretary Bill Costello of the Australian Embassy said there is “very strong international agreement on what good governance is and why it is important.’’
He noted his country has overhauled its system in the past two decades. “We don’t ask you to do what we haven’t done ourselves.’