Archive for April 27th, 2008

Week 557 – 2008-04-27: “…time to stop before the people lose their patience.”

Posted on 27 April 2008. Filed under: *Editorial*, Week 557 |

The Mirror, Vol. 12, No. 557

There was quite some reactions to the Prime Minister’s speech about the possibility of unrest in the country after the elections. And there was excitement about some statements allegedly made by the leader of the Sam Rainsy Party, that “he will take the land and property of the rich and give it to the poor” – which would lead to chaos in society.

We do not intend to add directly to this debate which we mirrored already during the week, but we would rather like to draw the attention to former – different – statements by the Prime Minister about the danger of social upheaval and also chaos in society. These statements often related to land conflicts, as a consequence of the granting of economic land concessions to big agricultural or forestry businesses, or the private grabbing of land, reportedly often with the protection of armed units, which became more and more serious over the years. And such events are reported almost every week until today.

In June 2002, in his Opening Address to the Cambodia Consultative Group Meeting, the Prime Minister said:

“We are conscious that corruption in the public machinery, be it judiciary or administrative or any other, increases transaction costs for every one and reduces predictability in law enforcement and implementation of government’s policies and equality of opportunity, so essential for economic growth and sustainable development. Low salaries in public service are a major influencing element in this equation and should be addressed and would need the support of our donors. Nevertheless, the government believes that enactment of adequate laws and regulations to prevent and punish corruption is crucial for addressing this problem. In this spirit, the Royal Government is committed to finalize the draft of the Anti-Corruption Law before end June 2003.”

In October 2005, the Prime Minister said:

“I warn that if land grabbing continues there will be a farmers’ revolution… It is time to stop before the people lose their patience.”

In March 2006, Deputy Prime Minister Sok Ah, speaking at the Consultative Group meeting, continued to address the question of corruption:

“Corruption is a curse that undermines our aspirations for development, social justice and poverty reduction. The war against corruption is another set of reforms that will take time; much like the war against terrorism. The approach must be comprehensive. As for the other two reforms, Cambodia must own and lead the change. It is not only a matter of sovereignty it is a matter of practicality. It is essential to sustainability and enforcement.

The adopted strategy is based on a three prone approach: prevention, law enforcement and mass support. The Administrative Reform and the Legal & Judicial Reform both contribute directly to reducing causes and opportunities for corruption. Sectoral reforms in land, natural resources, commerce and investment, revenue collection also contribute to the war against corruption.

Our partners rightly point to the need for a strong anti-corruption law.”

And in February 2007, the Chinese People’s Daily Online reported continuing similar concerns of the Cambodian Prime Minister:

“The land grabbers dare to get a lot of land illegally while we have always appealed again and again to stop,” and the Prime Minister is quoted further: “The land grabbers are not simple people, and they must be powerful people in the government. I asked the question, do they dare to conduct a coup d’etat in the future?” And he is quoted to have replied himself that they really dare to do so. “So before they conduct a coup d’etat, we need to take action against them.”

Whatever wording the leader of the opposition party may have used, the concern is similar and requires action. Too much economic injustice is not tolerable.

There are, of course, other methods to consistently work to overcome the economic gap between the rich and the poor, and to collect revenue for public services – apart from controlling corrupt practices: the system of taxation.

It is surprising that there is hardly any intensive discussion going on in the Khmer press about the economic models the different parties would like to see implemented – whoever gains the majority in the next round of elections for the National Assembly.

It was reported that during the recent Government-Private Sector Forum, the Working Group on
Law, Tax & Good Governance requested to speed up the issuing of land titles – so that the land titles could be used as the basis to secure bank loans for the farmers. This is not surprising, as it is a forum to discuss business. The forum to discuss fundamental policy is the National Assembly, where the elected representatives bring their visions to make concrete policy towards its realization. And the media are adding the voices of the general public to the debate.

It would be interesting to see a debate developing about how to structure not only law enforcement, once the Anti-Corruption Law will be finally in place, but also how taxation policy would help to gradually work towards bridging the gap between those who are rich, and the rest of the population.

The Prime Minister stated at various points of time – similarly also on 8 March 2002:

“The farmland tax would continue to be free as long as I am in power… the Cambodian farmers endure abundance of hardships. If they were to pay tax on their farmland, they would have further difficulty. Giving them farmland-tax free is like investing in them a sum of money to alleviate their poverty…”

This is hardly questioned – but there are small, and there are also very big landholders. In many other countries, they are treated separately.

This week, it was reported that Cambodia will greatly increase the tax on cigarettes in order to reduce the number of smokers and reduce the deterioration of the health of many citizens.

Maybe increasing the tax on large passenger cars would not only lead to a lot of savings for the whole country in the purchase of fuel from abroad, but would also save a lot of public funds spent on cars which are definitely oversized, compared with neighboring countries.

But apart from some such specific areas, there is not much evidence that the leadership of different sections of society are working to build public understanding, that an adequate taxation system has to be developed with urgency, if the public sector is to overcome its heavy dependence on international funding support.

We do not know if the following report is true or not: “A Senior Official of the Cambodian People’s Party Has Money to Buy a Supermarket in New Zealand.” Irrespective of this question, and irrespective of the party affiliation, such a report is food for thought: Which real chances do citizens of this country have to improve their economic lot? Did those who became extremely rich since 1979, or since 1993, really work much harder than those who did not make it to the top? Or are there some fundamental problems in the economic and taxation system of the country, which allowed that huge gaps developed, and that land grabbing continues? We all hope that the concern of the Prime Minister will come true: that the government will take decisive action “before the people lose their patience.”

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