The Cambodia Daily, November 11, 2008
Reports such as “Protests Continue Over ADB’s Rice Distributions” (Nov 7, page 29) and “200 Protest as ADB Completes Rice Donations (Nov 6, page 27) reflect three interrelated problems that need to be seriously addressed through a comprehensive approach:
1- The increasing wealth and revenue gap between a political and financial oligarchy and the mass of rural poor, who survive near the starvation line, increasingly relying on handouts, in a country that boasts a relatively high “macroeconomic growth rate.”
2- The need to check government corruption and official disdain for transparency and the rule of law that prevails at all levels of the state apparatus, from the Council of Ministers to village chiefs.
3- The absence of decentralization, meaning the failure to put in place procedures that would involve villagers at the grassroots level in decisions that affect their daily lives.
I would like to make a few remarks on the third issue, which few experts, analysts and observers have concentrated their attention on.
The current legislation on decentralization, meaning the devolution of power from the central government to elected local authorities, has existed only on paper since the first commune council elections in 2002.
The opposition SRP collected 25 percent of the popular votes at the last commune council elections in 2007. It has secured commune councillors in 85 percent of Cambodia’s 1,621 communes. It has won commune chief positions in 28 communes, first deputy chief positions in 403 communes and second deputy chief positions in 963 communes.
According to the law, the first deputy chief is in charge of finance and budget, and the second deputy chief of public services and security.
However, except for a few SRP-affiliated commune chiefs, elected local officials from the opposition actually have no power whatsoever. The CPP authorities at the national, provincial, district, commune and village levels just ignore them or bypass them, thus stalling any system of checks and balances and making a mockery of decentralisation.
Therefore, in 98 percent of Cambodia’s 1,621 commune councils that are headed by a CPP commune chief, the ruling party adamantly refuses to share power with the opposition.
Since the commune councils in turn elect village chiefs, virtually all the country’s more than 15,000 village chiefs are also controlled by the CPP.
Village chiefs are like little kings in their respective villages. They are integral parts of both the state apparatus and the CPP machinery. They actually control the population through using and abusing their power in countless activity fields that directly affect the daily lives of villagers.
Political bias is often associated with corruption. Village chiefs select villagers who are entitled to assistance from national and international organizations, including the Red Cross, based on criteria that may have nothing to do with humanitarian considerations.
Regarding the ongoing protests over ADB’s rice distributions, it was reported in one of the articles mentioned above that most of the complaints accused village chiefs of “bias and nepotism” in those chosen to receive rice and for excluding others from the beneficiary lists.
By violating the law on decentralization the CPP authorities block democracy at the grassroots level, which allows more and more irregularities and abuses to occur.
If, in each commune, all elected representatives of the people were properly informed, consulted and allowed to play their respective roles according to the law on decentralization and the spirit of democracy, the above problem of food distribution could be avoided. Many other and more serious problems could also be avoided.
The lesson is clear: The Cambodian government and the international donor community alike should abandon their ineffective piecemeal approach and start to solve problems from a comprehensive perspective by meeting conditions that are prerequisites of good governance: effective law enactment, effective decentralization and effective democracy at the grassroots levels.