Lawmakers from the ruling and opposition parties sit down to discuss their visions for Cambodia’s future
By Colin Meyn Photography by Sam Jam
Following the national election in late July, Cambodia has effectively become a two-party state for the first time. The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party’s (CNRP) populist platform, combined with discontent over the Cambodian People’s Party’s (CPP) performance in government over the past 20 years, saw the opposition make huge gains in the National Assembly, meaning the CNRP have theoretically increased their power to push policy over the next five years. Cheam Yeap of the CPP and Son Chhay of the CNRP, both senior lawmakers for their respective parties, sat down with Southeast Asia Globe to talk about their visions for Cambodia’s future.
Cambodia’s schools are insufficiently staffed, teachers take bribes and students leave school ill-prepared for working life. In times of global competition, what is your party planning to do for this crucial sector in the coming five to ten years?
Cheam Yeap: We have a total of 13,850 villages in Cambodia, so in all villages we will push, especially primary schools. We have 1,033 communes, and we will develop each commune to have secondary schools. We have 193 districts, where we will have a high school. In 23 provinces and the city of Phnom Penh we will have universities. Today we have more than 100 universities in Phnom Penh and nationwide. Recently, we provided examinations for high school students. We had more than 100,000 students who took part in the high school examination. Also, we [will] push the quality of education, especially the training of teachers and the professors. In 20 provinces we have local centres for training teachers in primary and secondary school. We have direct contacts with the ambassadors and the foreign embassies in Phnom Penh to train professors abroad.
Son Chhay: We cannot have a system in which teachers are living in poverty and struggling to survive while they are teaching. We have to pay them properly to begin with; then we have to look at curriculum. We have continued to adopt a very old curriculum for many, many years, and this means that young people, even after [going to] primary school and high school, seem to have no general knowledge or skills to help them find a job, so it is important to update the curriculum. The third thing is to provide enough funds for education. Cambodia continues to spend only 8% of our budget on education; this is too little, especially compared to our neighbouring countries, where the budget for education is more than 20%. We have to provide options for all Cambodians who want to be educated, so we will provide some [scholarship] money from primary school to university level.
Being either substandard or beyond the financial reach of most Cambodians, how do you plan to revolutionise the healthcare system?
Cheam Yeap: We will push and develop health centres in rural areas. Especially in each commune we have one health centre for consultations [about] diseases and the health of all the rural people. We train nurses, and we have three universities in Cambodia for doctors of medicine, nurses and midwifes. As chairman of economy and finance at the National Assembly, I will push for spending from the national budget every year in the healthcare sector for purchasing medicine from abroad to supply all hospital and health centres. We [will] spend some budget for technical training for the health of the people, and have ambulances for evacuating people from hospital to health centres.
Son Chhay: Any hospital, public or private, must have qualified staff. There has to be enough medicine and equipment, and prices need to be affordable. We must provide a free service for poor people – not just a service, but a proper service. There has to be some kind of consumer affairs office where people can complain about a doctor that charges them too much or doesn’t provide a proper service. Usually doctors have their own private clinic where they can charge people whatever they like, but they have the obligation to work in public hospitals and clinics as well. If we set the minimum wage [for civil servants] at $250 [per month], I think doctors and nurses can get double or triple that [salary], and they won’t have any excuse for extorting money from patients.
There is a skill shortage in the Cambodian workforce, particularly in non-traditional industries, as well as a relative lack of vocational training. How do you propose to solve this problem?
Cheam Yeap: We have professional training of Cambodian people [so that they can] secure employment, especially in the industrial sector and the service sector, like tourism. We work closely with other countries so that students can study abroad and improve their skills. Also, we have agriculture. We develop this sector because 85% of Cambodia’s citizens are farmers. We provide technical agriculture training in neighbouring countries such as the Philippines, Malaysia and Thailand, and we have a policy to assist all local farmers, especially via progress in the irrigation system and tranportation. Plus, we have a plan to export about one million tonnes of rice to foreign countries every year from 2015. We have 548 garment factories from foreign investors investing in Cambodia today, so we will export the garments to the big markets in the EU and US.
Son Chhay: There are many ways to create access to vocational training and skills outside of government institutions. The private sector has to take part. They are able to provide special training to existing workers in their company. I think it is important to start by building up trust, because in this country, over so many years, the corruption scared the hell out of so many good entrepreneurs and investors. Good investment must come from providing fair competition, providing support from government and providing a situation where businesses can find enough qualified workers and have access to electricity, to transport. [We must] make it more comfortable for them.
This was a hot topic during past election campaigns. How do you plan to offer land security and keep the traditional agrarian culture of Cambodia alive?
Cheam Yeap: The government will solve problems such as economic land concessions to make foreign investors believe in the government. At the same time, the government [has asked] university student volunteers to measure the land and provide land titles to the people. We will carefully measure or provide land titles in areas where there are disputes with government officials or powerful people that grab the people’s land. In the law, the government has devised two parts: one is economic land concessions (ELCs) and the other is social land concessions. With social land concessions, we provide land to people who do not have land – poor people. Providing ELCs for investors will let the farmers’ children have jobs there. At the same time, we get a profit from the investor in the ELC. When they export their product, the state can receive taxes according to the law. It is better than if we left the land without doing anything.
Son Chhay: Land is especially important in a country where nearly 85% of the population are farmers. The land concessions that the government have been giving away equal about three million hectares, which is about the same as the size of land occupied by farmers. That is ridiculous, as is renting it to concessionaires for 99 years without getting any rent from them. We will look into land concessions, which are illegal, but as a government, we [would] have to respect certain contracts that the previous government had made and find a way to take back as much land as possible. A portion of the land will go back to farmers, and a portion will be regrown as forests. If anyone already occupied the land, we would give them a title to ensure that they have land. Those who do not yet have any land need to be provided with some so they don’t have to work in Thailand.
Corruption and ‘tea money’ continue to make up a large part of the incomes of public servants at all levels. What measures will you take to combat this, and how do you propose to fund a modern, efficient and transparent public service?
Cheam Yeap: Recently we have pushed Cambodia to have an able state of law. In the National Assembly, in the past four legislatures, we passed more than 476 laws. We have the criminal law and penal code in the constitution, and we already established the anti-corruption law to manage corruption. Every two years, more than 100,000 civil servants declare their personal assets to the anti-corruption unit. The role and function of the anti-corruption institution must be to pursue the declared assets and issues of corruption of civil servants in all public institutions. We will meet the problem of corrupt government officials, especially in the Ministry of Finance and in customs and tax authorities. Having the law is better than if we do not have it, so if someone does something illegal, we have the law to punish them.
Son Chhay: Before you build up a workable system, you need to know what exactly you’ve got in your hand. You have a government that claims to have 100,000 soldiers, but in reality it’s probably about half of that. In the public sector, it is the same thing. We have to clean up seriously, beginning by ensuring that only one real person is on the payroll, a person who goes to work, not someone who never works and still gets paid. You have to ensure that promotions are based on merit, not because someone is related to powerful people or bribes their way in. Secondly, you have to pay them properly. You cannot ask them to stop taking bribes and then pay them $50 a month. We also plan to get rid of these obligations to become a party member. The CPP has been forcing everyone to become a CPP member because of the habit from the socialist system where every government employee has to be a party agent, not a public servant.
Asean Economic Community
Cambodia should be one of the nations that will benefit most from the AEC. What are your plans to ensure that this proves to be the case?
Cheam Yeap: As a country of the Asean region, we will provide our experience as a developing country as we improve the livelihoods of our people, especially through developing infrastructure. We liberate the people from poverty. We won’t allow foreign people to get more benefits from Asean than Cambodian people, but we need to learn from developed countries. Those countries have and respect the law; they also have good institutions to take on corruption. We will continue to learn about corruption, taking some points from those other countries.
Son Chhay: Our policy is to have a very strong agriculture industry, but this has to be done in a more professional way. Cambodians cannot afford to grow things in a traditional way any more; we have to move toward more technical ways. Farmers have to be educated so they have the skills to produce an international quality crop, and the government has to open foreign markets. We have to look at all the industries that can work together in partnership with agriculture products. It is important to get agriculture companies to work with farmers to encourage certain crops and give Cambodia a chance to do something with exports.
To thrive, every modern nation needs to foster strong relationships in the international community. Cambodia’s image as a democracy and an impartial member of Asean has suffered recently. In which directions are you looking in order to get the country back on track?
Cheam Yeap: We don’t care which countries we work with, but we want those countries to help Cambodia in fields such as agriculture. Vietnam and China want to invest in Cambodia because they like the rules of the Cambodian government. Right now, China is becoming a dragon economy; other countries such as Japan cannot compare with the Chinese. What is important is that China dares to invest in Cambodia. Other countries don’t dare to do so. Cambodia does not allow China to have colonial powers in Cambodia – each country respects the law and respects each other. We have the most assistance from China such as in the economy, culture and education in Cambodia – and the loans are low interest.
Son Chhay: It is important that Cambodia remains a neutral nation in our relationship with the world, including good relations with our [Asean] neighbours. You cannot be dominated by anyone, and Cambodia has suffered a lot when we have taken sides with any superpower. In terms of the two superpowers, we appreciate America a lot. The country that has assisted Cambodia in moving forward with democracy is the US. In contrast, the Chinese are quite different. We have never had a good, beneficial relationship with China. China doesn’t support our economic achievements. They are just exploiting us. They are interested in our resources – look at our forests, they have cut down all of our trees – and they have cheated us on all of these loans. They are willing to supply loans for roads, bridges and hydro dams, but they must go through Chinese companies, who multiply the real cost so they can make huge profits. Cambodia cannot afford to have China exploiting us and, at the same time, taking away our independence and our economic future.
These interviews have been edited and condensed.
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