Cambodia in Urgent Need of Economic Policy Debate

Sim Vireak

01/04/2016 Feature

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The upcoming Cambodian general election is in two years’ time, and Cambodian politicians should now begin their policy debate, especially on how to build a stronger economy.

The strength of the economy is not reflective of the amount of Lexus cars being driven in Phnom Penh or the amount of vacant high-rise buildings being built. It is instead more dependent upon how sizeable and healthy our middle class population is, and how economic benefits are being distributed nationwide. Also central is the amount of government revenue to implement policy, provide public services, modernize the military, etc.

Past achievements have brought about peace and stability on which Cambodia has been able to stand firm in the international arena. However, Cambodia can’t afford to just stand; we need to run or even leap in order to catch up with the time lost through Cambodia’s tumultuous history.

As a young democratic country, we as Cambodians should be proud of ourselves in terms of the electoral process which is, although not flawless, widely accepted internationally and can be said to be relatively more democratic when compared to some of our ASEAN peers.

Unfortunately, even though we have had experience of five general elections, political debates are still very much limited to dichotomy politics and partisanship, intra-party power struggles, inter-party re-alignments, traditional blame games and credit takings​ for past legacies.

Cambodian voters deserve better from our politicians. The Cambodian public should be more exposed to policy discussions and politicians from both the ruling and opposition parties should be responsible for leading such discussions and inform the public more widely about current policies Cambodia is undertaking. It is time that we debate more about the future, about the economy and business in this world of global competition for economic and sovereign territorial survival.

Considering the current challenges we are facing, policy topics are abundant. Yet, we seem to have lost sight of where we want to go, and our politicians do not sufficiently debate visions for Cambodia’s future. The Cambodian government launched our Industrial Development Policy (IDP) 2015-2025 last year, but we haven’t yet seen our politicians discussing this policy in public. Looking around us, we can easily see that competition in the region is tough. Every country is trying hard to better its economic status.

Vietnam is evaluating the viability of expanding into automobile manufacturing. Thailand will soon have a bullet train and its military government is creating ten new industrial zones along the border to maximize benefit from cross-border trade. Indonesia was seen trying to court Facebook and Google to support its digital economy and is aiming to replace Singapore and Malaysia as Southeast Asia’s logistics hub. The Philippines has overtaken Thailand and Vietnam as the investment destination of choice in Asia amongst Japanese companies, as these companies try to diversify their investment beyond China. These are the types of developments that highlight the ambition of our ASEAN peers for the future and how they are competing to take the economic spotlight.

But what about Cambodia? What is our dream for the future? And what steps have we taken towards that dream? Our economy and national security are very much vulnerable and heavily reliant on our two big neighbors. When armed conflict broke out with Thailand in 2008, the Cambodian army was caught off-guard lacking military hardware; even simple clothing for soldiers. Fighting with Thailand put a strain on the national budget: every ministry had to cut down expenses, every institution conducted charity events to support soldiers at the frontline. However, charity cannot last forever, and nationalism and pride cannot protect us from missiles either. We need military hardware.

When Thailand decided to crack down on illegal laborers in 2014, nearly 200,000 Cambodians were loaded into trucks and dumped at the border. This inhumane imagery is still fresh in our memory. The destiny of an estimated one million Cambodian migrant laborers are in Thailand’s grip. In November last year, during the water festival, 24 provinces in Cambodia experienced blackouts for more than one hour due to “technical problems” in Vietnam. Despite the fact that Cambodia aims to become a major rice exporter, roughly one million tons of Vietnamese rice enters Cambodia illegally every year.

These are issues that Cambodian politicians should debate more, with the aim to raise policy alternatives instead of playing the “blame-game”. Policy-making is not the exclusive right of the ruling party. In other words, you don’t need to become a ruling party before you can create and propose policy options.

The time is ripe for Cambodian politicians to lead Cambodian public discussion to a new level of debate to be based on policy alternatives instead of endless destructive criticism and emotional and personal attacks.

Sim Vireak (Former Diplomat)