Hope and Frustration of Cambodia – a Personal View

 By Oum Sothea

Photo by Eng Sothy

I have to admit that as one of the young generation of Cambodia, I am too eager to see a quick transformation of war-torn Cambodia into her modern version of glorious past. In what follows, I would like to express my reasoned anxieties and hope for the better future of Cambodia with great humility.

Let me first start with my hope, Cambodia has been known as “Sovannaphumi” or “the golden land” for her rich natural resources and established culture and civilization. Though the connotation as such to the present day may be arguable, the general description of the country still holds given the unearthed resources and the most valuable political capital, peace and stability. Of course, one of the sources wrecking “Sovannaphumi” is massive exploitations of forests and the disappearance of the fame “Pailin gems” in recent time, putting the tragic history aside. These few examples have given valuable lessons for all Cambodians to learn how to better manage their national treasures in a sustainable manner.

The unpolished human talents and unexploited natural resources such as water, oil and gas, and other minerals are where the future ground of Cambodia may lie. In particular for natural resources, there are ongoing discussions on how to avoid the potential misuses and the dark side of the windfalls from oils and gas, a.k.a. “resource curse” and “Dutch decease” as well as the environmental impacts. These concerns are well grounded given the fact that many countries with these easy revenues, if not well managed, tend to end up becoming poorer, unstable, and war-wrecked to the present day.

However, Cambodia has the luxury to learn from other mistakes. These imaginary windfalls, if realized, should be allowed to be best used. Besides health care and infrastructures, priority should be given to restore the credibility and reputation of the education system by providing right incentives for our teachers and students to be innovative and the world intellectual leaders, the long-term and eternal sources of future development. Of course, this should always be aimed regardless of the windfalls.

Another source of hope is a vibrant young generation and their gradual assumption of leadership roles. The young leaders in both public and private sector may provide and realize the vision of a brighter future of Cambodia. However, the hope is unwarranted unless the meritocratic and incentive system and fundamental prerequisites are firmly at place. Having interacted with those young and promising leaders who are often humble, bright, and open-minded, there seems to be burning desire in them to move reforms forward, to make the country known for being ruled by laws, for its efficiency, business-friendly, and above all, a new Cambodia, a rising star in terms of harmonious and prosperous country. If trust, institution, and favorable environment are ripe for them to utilize their real potential and talents, there is a reason to be optimistic.

Lastly, the advancement in human civilization has provided Cambodia ample leeway to go in terms of economic development and wellbeing of the people. Enough is known on how to spur balanced growth taking into account equity and sustainability. In theory, policy makers and public servants in general are esteem servants of their own people by making and implementing policies in response to those in needs on top of the overall wellbeing of the country. It is evident that there are a growing number of Cambodians who are natural or trained to be compassionate professionals and who see abject poverty and the suffering of other people are of their own. They want to present a new face of Cambodia full with pride and dignity in the international arena.

Being optimistic, however, I have tremendous anxieties and frustration to witness slow progress in the areas of not less significance to the future of Cambodia.

First of all, there has to be clear moral leaderships and role-models to follow in the area of upholding the rule of laws and professionalism. Even though there is sign of good intention to enforce the laws. Cambodia still has a long way to realize the essence of being a society where everybody is equal before laws. Laws seem to be selectively enforced and compliance seems to be very costly. For obvious reasons, power and mandate stipulated by the laws have been very often used as “hold-up” or tools to extort rents or ransom rather than to ensure order, harmony, and justice in society. This pattern of behaviour can no longer be accepted as part of daily life in modern Cambodia.

It is commonly known that the prevailing social injustice is one of the most powerful forces that can drag a society into conflicts, instability, and heinous wars. Cambodia has invaluable lessons to learn from its tragic past.
Cambodia should also afford to have “Ms. and Mr. Cleans'” honoured for their moral and role-models being best in their ways of life, professionalism, attitude, skills, innovation, and intellectual excellence, not merely for their questionable accumulation of material wealth. There are many ways to do so – providing incentives and rules, carrot-and-sticks. Cambodia can have her own version of the Nobel Prizes, National Research Grants, Scholarships, Cambodians of the Year etc. Being both symbolic and financial incentives with great transparency and significance in nature. With right incentives, there is no room allowed for abuses of power, unethical acts, not to mention obvious criminal behaviours – ending “impunity” and honouring the best.

Second, the widen gap of living standard between the poor and the rich is another source of worry. While the ongoing efforts to fasten rural infrastructure and agricultural productivity improvement are encouraged, closer attention is needed to tackle other most direct sources of the worsening income of the rural poor. The proliferation of large-scale land concessions has accelerated faster than addressing the decreasing average area of agricultural land for each family, the main source of income for rural households. Rationalization of land ownership and efforts should be taken made to have people reallocated to new areas with adequate arable lands and infrastructure. Enforcement of tax on unused lands is also long overdue to decelerate the concentration of unproductive land ownerships.

Another direct route toward well-established system of distribution of income yet to realize is a rationalization of taxation, especially income tax. Without income tax and weak enforcement of measures against tax evasion, the poor ends up paying disproportionally higher tax burden than the rich who enjoys direct exemption of income tax and indirect exemption on consumption of contraband luxurious goods. The introduction and enforcement of these universal tax regimes will provide additional source of national revenue that can be used to raise living standard of the majority of public servants and other pro-poor development projects.

Third, corruption has to be dealt with urgency. Given adequate accumulation of wealth for those who are in the position to continuously stand benefits from it, zero-tolerance to corruption should be advocated. Very often, the excuse of siphoning-off public funds by inflating public projects and expenditure, and illicit activities is that those funds are needed to finance political campaigns (though larger proportion is for own benefits). In fact, good public policies are enough to secure public supports and votes in modern day, if the purpose of winning elections and holding power is to serve best interests of the nation. The prolonged tolerance on corruption is self-destructive and costly to the nation; given that huge amount of accumulation of foreign debts from concession loans are not best used and have to be paid by next generation of Cambodia. Moreover, the negative impacts of corruption to business and wellbeing of everyone is immeasurable. There is no dignity in enriching oneself through corruption.

Last but not less, main source of my frustration can be summed up as result of weak institution. Without established and efficient “institution”, the structure of society is nothing but a house of cards. Cambodia cannot afford to function based on shadow power structure, individual, personal, and informal relation-based, not rules-based and well-established institutions. Without institution, the function of the society is prone to disability and collapse, since the aforementioned factors are very uncertain and fragile.

I wish that my genuine hope is realized and my frustration will be shared by others so that actions can be taken. I believe that building a harmonious and prosperous Cambodia is everyone’s dream. If I succeed in providing moral supports to those who champion the development of Cambodia and raising awareness of sources of concerns to be taken into account, I have fulfilled my minor part as a concerned citizen of Cambodia.

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