Cambodia Reform Review: Ministries Need to Communicate Better

VOA Khmer’s Soeung Sophat spoke to Silas Everett, Cambodia country representative for the Asia Foundation, to find out more about the findings from a new reform tracking project.

Silas Everett, country director of the Asia Foundation at his office in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, February 4th, 2016. (Nov Povleakhena/VOA Khmer)

Silas Everett, country director of the Asia Foundation at his office in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, February 4th, 2016. (Nov Povleakhena/VOA Khmer)

Editor’s Note: Following the gains made by Cambodia’s opposition at the July 2013 national elections, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party promised “deep reforms” across a number of sectors. In September of that year, two new ministers were appointed at key ministries—Sun Chanthol at the Commerce Ministry and the new Minister of Education Hang Choun Naron. The latter subsequently oversaw a tightening of rules in the cheating-ridden nationwide examinations for high school students, drawing media attention and ultimately widespread praise. But there has been no deluge of other visible reforms, and the scope and impact of the reform effort has become a matter of political debate. Critics say those reforms that have taken place have been shallow and limited. It is argued that some reform efforts—like the exam crackdown—have been of the low-hanging variety, while more tricky areas in need of reform—the judiciary and the military, for instance—have not been touched. In an effort to understand the nature and progress of these reforms, the Asia Foundation in early 2015 launched the Reform Inventory Initiative (RII), a first-of-its-kind annual ministry-by-ministry review. Results gathered from 12 responsive ministries were published online early this year (accessible here). VOA Khmer’s Sophat Soeung spoke to Silas Everett, Cambodia country representative for the Asia Foundation, to find out more about the findings. This interview has been edited for space and clarity.

The issue of reform in Cambodia is often viewed through different narratives, which vary depending on political interests. Could you walk us through how you conducted your analysis of reforms in that context?

What you are alluding to in terms of the narratives around reform, I think, is incredibly important. And really in September 2013, after the national election and the very close results, it put a new emphasis on reform. When we start to look at which ministries are really undertaking reforms, of the 27, we were essentially able to find information on 12 of the ministries. That helps us narrow down into the ministries where the reform is taking place. Our process was, first, doing a lot of desk research. We went online and went to the ministries’ websites and social media pages and then we followed up with a lot of interviews. We talked to [officials] from the ministers down to their chiefs of staff, down to technical people, as well as consultants that work with the ministries, to gather information, plans, and reports and laws and prakas and other things that are related to the reforms. From that process, we then met with a large group of advisers. We formed an advisory group that consisted of people in the private sector and from development partners down to the civil society organizations. For Cambodia, it was quite an extensive group of people who supported us to identify what they thought was really where the rubber met the road in terms of reform. And that was really helpful getting that guidance and insight because those were the organizations that are really close to the importance of those reforms for people in Cambodia.

What do you think are the most promising reforms?

The most promising reforms that we’re seeing are really coming out of the education and health sectors. The stricter monitoring of the national exam in 2014, when that got put in there was initially some backlash from students that didn’t manage to pass—there was an 87 percent pass rate in the previous years and then with the stricter monitoring it went down to about 25 percent on the first round. So there were a number of people that were disgruntled with it. But by and large when we went out there and did some polling, we found that almost all Cambodians—96 percent of those that we spoke with—had really agreed with the ministry’s tougher stance on the exams. And I think the reason why the reform is happening is because people really care about education in Cambodia. It’s not just general public, but the private sector needs education, needs the skilling of human resource base in order to take advantage of the regional and global supply chains. For the implementation of the reform itself, it’s a way for the government to really take the front foot forward and be able to deliver critical service. And I think in that sense, it gets a lot of positive reaction. If you look at the Ministry of Education’s Facebook page, it’s by far the most popular right now for a government agency in Cambodia. I think that’s really because there are young people and they are curious about what’s going on from exam results to just following of the progress that has been taken in that ministry.

Police are guarding in front of Chak To Muk examination center to tighten the security on the grade 12 examination day on August 24th, 2015. (Sou Pisen/VOA Khmer)

Police are guarding in front of Chak To Muk examination center to tighten the security on the grade 12 examination day on August 24th, 2015. (Sou Pisen/VOA Khmer)

Then, for health, it’s another area, of course, that is critical to make sure that there’s a healthy population, healthy workforce and again, that’s a confluence of the interests of both in terms of the value of extending the services to people—looking forward to the next election, looking forward to being able to catalyze and use the human resources for economic progress and development in the country.

Was there anything that surprised you from the initiative’s findings?

One of the things that I did find [that is] important to reflect on was that in the ministries that we met with, many of them had reforms but nobody knew about them. And sometimes, even in the ministries, people weren’t really aware of what was happening with those reforms. We just cursorily asked about communications functions within the ministry, and I think it is one of the priorities right now for the government is to be able to really catalogue and be able to project more of what actually happening within the ministries. One takeaway was the need to strengthen and step that up.

The other one was in terms of the impacts of the reforms themselves. We would oftentimes get a name or a list or description of the reform, but information on the actual impact of that reform was really hard to find. I think part of it is, again, in terms of on the evaluation side of getting more down into: what is the actual impact of the reform, and then being able to tell that story through improved communication within the ministries.

When government institutions take on reforms by themselves, who holds them to account and the measure impacts?

That, from an external perspective, is very difficult to do, but from an internal perspective—from inside the ministries themselves—there are a number of things that they can do. One example is in terms of the increase in salaries that took place at the end of 2013 for civil servants, to be able to take a baseline of productivity within a particular ministerial service function and then, after the salary increases, go back in and say: was productivity increased in that particular service function? That’s something that can be done readily and fairly easily, working with line management within the ministries.

FILE - Children of Boeung Kak women protesters wear portraits of their mothers around their foreheads as they pray at a protest in front of the Ministry of Justice in Phnom Penh. (Reuters)

FILE – Children of Boeung Kak women protesters wear portraits of their mothers around their foreheads as they pray at a protest in front of the Ministry of Justice in Phnom Penh. (Reuters)

There is a lot of public interest in how these reforms are going, and there have been concerns that some critical areas, like the judiciary and the military, are not reforming enough. What are your findings so far with regard to that? And how can the public find out more about it?

Basically, our methodology was whether or not we can get access to the information through doing the desk research, through submitting official letters, through making meeting requests. We were able to get 12 out of 27 ministries. We hope that changes. We hope that it’s easier as we go forward that we see the Reform Inventory Initiative being able to really be seen as something that is of service to getting the good information about what’s taking place.

I think it’s really easy to look at the glass as half empty here. We really, I think, are very optimistic. When I look at where the reform inventory is actually able to dig out some of the reforms that are really making an impact, when we really look at those, I’m very optimistic when I see that. I think the idea is that one question is: What is it that the public really cares about in terms of reform? What are the critical reforms that they actually want to see moving and understand and everything else? And I think there’s a lot of roles that the government can play, civil society can play, and donors, to better educate the public about what’s really important. You take decentralization, for example, one of the government’s three main reform areas, and decentralization is absolutely critical for people to understand at this point because you need the demand side there for it. But it’s complicated. It’s complex. So, I think, putting that emphasis on communications actually right now for Cambodia’s development is one of those critical areas, but it’s something that not one single ministry needs to do—all the ministries need to do it. I think from civil society to development partners, it’s something that should be encouraged. I am encouraged to see Facebook and social media becoming a lot more widely adopted. That’s a very significant trend for Cambodian and a good sign, I think, that there is an opening there for the future.

Senior Cambodian government officers are using their smart phones while awaiting the return of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen from France at Phnom Penh International Airport, October 28, 2015. (Hean Socheata/VOA Khmer)

Senior Cambodian government officers are using their smart phones while awaiting the return of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen from France at Phnom Penh International Airport, October 28, 2015. (Hean Socheata/VOA Khmer)

From your findings, are the reforms fast enough for the public?

The interesting thing about our findings, from the Reform Inventory Initiative that the Asia Foundation supported, was that that the engagement of the public, oftentimes, on the reforms was relatively minimal. The Asia Foundation does a regular annual public opinion poll. We ask about reforms that are taking place to try to understand what it is that people care about and what people see on the ground. And the findings are that it largely resonates around infrastructure, to see physical things change. It’s a lot harder to see change happening in services. Services take a long time to improve and yet those were the two areas that I had mentioned—health and education—where people noted the most improvement on social services.

FILE - Work continues on Cambodia longest bridge before it is inauguration in Neak Loeung, southeast of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Jan. 14, 2015. (AP)

FILE – Work continues on Cambodia longest bridge before it is inauguration in Neak Loeung, southeast of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Jan. 14, 2015. (AP)

Do you have any recommendations to the government or the public on what should be the priorities when we think about reforms in Cambodia?

I think giving a better picture to the public about what the reform actually means will go a long way to getting buy-in from the general public for the reform. It’s to move from being in a situation where the general public is either giving a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down—which I don’t think is that helpful—to getting the public engaged in what is actually taking place. Then, the public can get more engaged, citizens can get more engaged in all of the aspects of the implementation of the reform. In the words of development speak, [you have to] co-create a service. It actually requires both the provider and the recipient to be able to provide the service effectively. So I think when it comes down to speed, I would put the emphasis really on getting the public up to speed on what the reforms actually are, and working and listening and spending a lot more time to make sure that there’s communication there between the frontline providers and citizens as well as within the ministries themselves—between those that are actually providing the services and those that are making policies.

With that all said, it’s still important to chip away at the big reforms, the ones that you had mentioned—the justice system sector, security sector, I would throw in there the civil service as well—reforms in those areas. Those are big reforms that take a long period of time. There’s plenty of research. There’s plenty of global information that those things take a really long time. But now is the time to start chipping away. It’s important that there is a conversation that gets started and it doesn’t necessarily need to be only civil society always raising these issues. It can be reform the government itself initiates. I think for the government, it would buy a huge amount of confidence and support that it really is trying, it really is undertaking the reform efforts really deeply to heart.

FILE - People raise their arms as they gather during a protest at Freedom Park in central Phnom Penh December 17, 2013. (Reuters)

FILE – People raise their arms as they gather during a protest at Freedom Park in central Phnom Penh December 17, 2013. (Reuters)

So the public can act as a check on the government’s reforms, so long as they have information about what’s actually going on with the reforms?

When dealing with very complex systems, including the economy, both Cambodia’s economy and how it links to regional and global economy, I think we also have to look at it in that light. I think in terms of Cambodia’s overall relationship with its neighbors and the global powers, the international community—all of that matters. I think the checks and balances come from many different angles, but I think at the end of the day, the incentives are really important to look at. It’s important to look at what the drivers of change are. 2013 national elections—that clearly provided a lot of incentives moving up to the 2017, 2018 elections. There’s more incentives out there and I think there is need to look at education more broadly. Tertiary education, for example, is one of the main drivers of change for Cambodia’s development future. It’s really going to be investing in young people to be able to participate not just in social-political life, but economically. And moving forward for the next decade, looking at the demographics in Cambodia, that’s going to be a huge shift and I think now is the time to start preparing for that.

This article originally appeared on VOA Khmer here.

Author Predicts ‘Evolutionary’ Shedding of Cambodia’s Old Politics

By Sophat Soeung

WASHINGTON—Editor’s note: The strong performance of the Cambodian opposition in the 2013 elections and subsequent call for leadership change surprised many observers. Nevertheless, Prime Minister Hun Sen continues his rule and has recently marked 30 years in power. Sebastian Strangio, a former reporter for the Phnom Penh Post and author of “Hun Sen’s Cambodia,” recently joined VOA Khmer for a TV interview at the Voice of America studios in Washington, to discuss the future of Cambodia’s political system.

You moved to Cambodia in 2008, the year there was an election that was arguably the height of the popularity of Hun Sen and the ruling party. Did the results in the elections five years later surprised you?

They did, yes. I think there were very few people who guessed what was going to happen. 2008 was an overwhelming victory for the CPP. And it seemed as if they had established their dominance to such an extent that it is now beyond challenge. But what 2013 showed is that we were mistaken about a lot of this, or we overlooked many of the social and economic changes that had taken place, not only over the past five years, but over the past two decades.

After the elections, the ruling party promised deep reforms. To what extent do you think they can deliver on that promise?

Well, it’s always going to be a challenge for them. I think that Hun Sen realizes the importance of reform and that if he doesn’t do it, doesn’t take steps to improve things for ordinary people, that the party is going to have a very difficult time being reelected in 2018. You can already see that they have started to take steps in education and environmental policy, but the problem with the Cambodian political system is that Hun Sen relies so heavily on a class of tycoons and business people and powerful military commanders and government officials. And his rule has been based on keeping these people happy. Now the $60,000 question is whether he will be able to reform the system enough to keep people from switching their vote to the opposition while still maintaining the power and support of these individuals who have supported his rule for so long.

What is your sense of that?

So far the contradictions remain. The government has taken some positive steps, reforming education, for instance, but when it comes to challenging the entrenched economic interests that exist in Cambodia, the powerful tycoons and their connection to things like logging and deforestation, land grabs, that link has been very difficult to sever. There is still an incredible inertia out in the provinces. The logging continues, land grabs continue, and I think that the government has only a limited amount of power to really stop it. The system relies too heavily on this. So only time will tell whether they’re ultimately successful in getting that balance right.

Part of the question also rests on the opposition, which has also been criticized for lack of leadership. I think you mentioned that somewhere in your book as well. Now do you see the opposition as a viable alternative in the next election? And what more should they do to actually live up to some of the promises that they’ve given?

It is very difficult for the opposition, because in a political system that’s based on patronage, which is the way Cambodia works today, and the bonds of loyalty between ministers and their staff and military commanders and soldiers that serve them. It’s very difficult for the opposition to simply slot into that system and command the loyalty of all of these civil servants and soldiers and police officials. And so in that sense they face huge challenges, and I think the best thing the [Cambodian National Rescue Party] can do at the moment is to work away slowly at promoting better policies and pushing their agenda in parliament and then hope that slow, incremental change allows them more and more say in how the country is governed. I don’t think a rapid transition of power is likely in Cambodia, and, in the past, most transitions of power from one group to another have involved some sort of violence. So I think a slow sort of evolution is probably the best course, but I don’t think the party is in a position to immediately take control of the country, nor do I think Hun Sen is in a position or of an inclination to grant them that.

In your book, you seem optimistic about Cambodia’s younger generation. An analyst mentioned that the future of Cambodia rests on that generation’s ability to produce its own leaders to avoid what he called “old politics.” How and when do you think that might happen?

I think it is already starting to happen. The Cambodian population is more educated and more connected to the outside world than ever before. And so I think we’re already starting to see young people rise up, either in the NGO sector or the private sector, who have incredible leadership abilities. The question is whether the current political system will allow them to use their talents in government. So far the 18 months since the election have been pretty much politics as usual. It’s been old politics. It’s been negotiations between key individuals, a lot of egos, and not a lot of substance.

It is generally understood that Hun Sen is grooming his children for a future transition. What will be the consequence of that?

It’s too soon to say exactly what the CPP is planning. It is certainly planning some sort of generational succession. You see that with not just Hun Sen’s children, but also many other ruling party officials have maneuvered their son and daughters into positions of power. But as with everything in the CPP, it depends not just on what Hun Sen wants but also on what all of the powerful people that have a stake in the current system, what they want. And I think that any potential candidate to take over from Hun Sen will have to have the loyalty of the majority of the country’s powerbrokers. And I think it is too soon to say who might be in a position to command that sort of loyalty.

You say in your book that the Cambodian story needs to be told. What do you think is the biggest lesson that you’ve learned from Cambodia that can be applied in the region?

I think it is the fate of Cambodia’s democratic transition. In places like Myanmar right now, we see a similar sort of transition happening: a move from a closed, isolated, and embargoed system, to one that’s welcoming international aid and foreign investment. But I think what Cambodia shows is the ability to engineer democracy in a country that has such a violent and unstable history and very little history of democratic government was always going to be a tall order, and I think it is a cautionary tale for the ease with which these sorts of systems can be simply built from the ground up. But the problem is that very few people pay attention to Cambodia anymore, and it is a pity, because I think these lessons are very clear and I think if people looked to Cambodia and analyzed what’s going on in the last 20 years since the UNTAC mission of the early 1990s, I think they would have much more temperate expectations about the democratic possibilities for somewhere like Burma.

This article originally appeared on VOA Khmer here.

Burmese Official Says Country’s Reforms Outpacing Neighbors

Original VOA piece by Kong Sothanarith and Sophat Soeung, December 6, 2013

President Thein Sein of Myanmar zoomed passed me after giving an exclusive interview at Voice of America headquarters in Washington, DC, May 19, 2013. Such is the pace of Myanmar's reforms.

President Thein Sein of Myanmar zoomed passed me after giving an exclusive interview at the Voice of America headquarters in Washington, DC, Sunday, May 19, 2013. Such is the pace of Myanmar’s reforms that some of its official claim is outpacing its neighbors. (Sophat Soeung)

PHNOM PENH & WASHINGTON DC – A senior adviser to the Burmese government says reforms in that country are outpacing Cambodia and other regional neighbors.

Speaking on the sidelines of a conference at American University in Washington, Ko Ko Hlaing, chief political adviser to Burmese President Thein Sein, admitted that Burma, also known as Myanmar, is a “latecomer” to political reforms. But he said it is making gains.

“Even though Cambodia is now enjoying the political and democratic transition, but I think Myanmar is more open than Cambodia up to right now,” he told VOA Khmer. “So you can see in the media, and also the movement of the civil society and also the situation of free and fair elections in our bi-elections in 2012.”

Ou Virak, who is head of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, and who visited Burma in November, disagrees.

“Democracy in Cambodia is better, I think,” he told VOA Khmer. “But democracy is Cambodia is still grave.”

Burma, which has undertaken democratic reforms, including an election, is preparing to chair Asean in 2014. It has seen diplomatic improvements with regional countries and on the international stage, including with the US.

But Information Minister Khieu Kanharith told VOA Khmer that Cambodia has “genuine democracy,” pointing to gains at the polls by the opposition in July, despite opposition objections to what it says were fraudulent elections.

“We do not pretend to be a model of democracy, because each country has its own history and its own pace to attain it,” Khieu Kanharith said by text message. “But at least we don’t have civil war anymore.”

Ou Virak said that Burma’s elected officials are still a part of the military junta that has ruled the country for decades. And the media there suffer from the same ills as in Cambodia, he said. “TV and radio are still under strict measures, as in Cambodia,” he said.

Eric Schmidt: Get to Know the Digital Leaders of the Future!

Mr. Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google, gives a lecture about technology and economic growth at the John Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) Wednesday, November 20, 2013. (Sophat Soeung)

Mr. Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google, gives a lecture about technology and economic growth at the John Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) Wednesday, November 20, 2013. (Sophat Soeung)

Speaking to international affairs students and professionals at the John Hopkins University’s SAIS on Wednesday, Google’s Eric Schmidt advised them get to know the digital leaders of the future in additional to foreign policy leaders as the world is seeing a gradual shift of power.

“I think that the leaders of this digital revolution have earned a seat at your table. I really believe this. I think they’re just as important – they are not more important but they are just as important. And I would advise you to get to know them early. Get to know them when they are young. Get to know them when they are on their way up. Watch them change the world, figure out a way to support them, and figure out a way to follow them. Because those will be the people who will ultimately shape the discourse a decade from now, or two decades from now because they will then be, in power.”

Mr. Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google, gives a lecture about technology and economic growth at the John Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) Wednesday, November 20, 2013. (Sophat Soeung)

Mr. Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google, gives a lecture about technology and economic growth at the John Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) Wednesday, November 20, 2013. (Sophat Soeung)

He also advised countries and companies to attract and keep innovators:

“In building these networks, we are going to need innovators. Innovators are the lifeblood of these [network] models. You have to have entrepreneurs. You have to have people who have new ideas and you have to protect them.”

You can watch the full lecture and panel here, including my questioning at 52:00.

Predicting Cambodia: Before and After a Historic Election

My research paper for the East-West Center's Asia-Pacific Bulletin about growing influence of social media on pre-election Cambodia.

My research paper for the East-West Center’s Asia-Pacific Bulletin about the growing influence of social media in pre-election Cambodia.

I have finally received a color copy of my first policy paper published by the East-West Center, a prominent U.S. education and research institution. This short research has greatly boosted my confidence in predicting and analyzing events in Cambodia.

In this paper, I primarily argued that on the eve of Cambodian fifth general elections, a number of new socio-political variables have entered Cambodian politics, including a merger of Hun Sen’s political opposition, a sudden and accidental political awareness of a new generation I termed “post-Khmer Rouge baby boomers”, and a rise in nationalism that – unlike the 2008’s Preah Vihear drama – was more favorable to the opposition party’s anti-Vietnam campaign. Just months before the election, these new variables converged on the country’s exploding Facebook and other social media platforms, which are in themselves a significant variable. The growth pace of this “digital democracy” had kept it largely under the government’s radar.

Although (or because) published just days before the elections, the paper received only moderate publicity, except for the Bangkok Post. I was also too busy after the election to write a follow-up to it.

Nevertheless, I was among the first few observers who seemed to have fully grasped the changes in pre-election Cambodia. The points I laid out would later be confirmed by the election results and other Cambodia observers have since followed up on those social changes. It is a current hot topic among researchers and journalists and this latest piece in the Southeast Asia Globe could easily have been my own follow-up writing.

Predicting Cambodia is always interesting because the country must be one of the world’s most unpredictable. Due to its modern history and political ideology, Cambodia does not easily fit established political and social theories. New terms like “auto-genocide” and references like Phnom Penh’s 2012 “high-profile failure” over the South China Sea dispute had to be developed. July’s surprising general election also seemed to have put Cambodia closer to an Arab Spring than any other Southeast Asian country.

Well, these all make the job of guessing “what’s next?” in Cambodia all the more fun.