Commentary: Cambodia Goes for Governance Reform, Diplomatic Rebalancing

APRIL 18, 2016

Jakarta. When Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen carried out a sweeping reshuffle of his cabinet recently, he actually sent out two messages, one to his countrymen, the other to the world.

Look, he was telling his countrymen, I'm going after corruption in the bureaucracy with a hammer and tongs. For this I'm axing the ministers of agriculture, land management, rural affairs, transport, commerce, religion and foreign affairs.

Significantly the ministries of education and environment, led by reputed reformists, were untouched. Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron has cracked down on sleazy practices in schools, such as cheating in exams and the jacking up of grades. He has raised teachers' salaries so they have less reason for bilking pupils. Reform has a long way to go in the education sector but Naron has made a robust beginning.

For his part, Environment Minister Say Samal has done the unthinkable: the transfer of a large part of his ministry's powers to another ministry. Prime Minister Hun Sen has acceded to his proposal to shift control of the country's economic land concessions from the Ministry of Environment to the Ministry of Agriculture. Samal's ministry can now focus exclusively on conservation and the protection of what is left of Cambodia's forests.

Meanwhile a notable reformist, Chea Sophara, has taken over the corruption-riddled land management ministry. Cambodia today is in a maelstrom of disputes over land titles involving not only farmers but also members of rich families fighting over inheritances. Chea Sophara will have his hands full tidying up the mess.

The spur for reform is obvious: the government painfully needs to recover political ground lost to the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). In the 2013 elections Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party squeaked through to victory by the skin of its teeth. That was a rude awakening: the people were at the end of their patience with rife and rampant corruption and a widening gap between rich and poor.

Hun Sen must have also felt the people's displeasure with a foreign policy that was too China-oriented, to the detriment of Cambodia's ties with such powers as the United States, Japan and the European Union as well as with Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) neighbors.

That's why Hor Namhong, the country's long-serving foreign minister had to go. It was he who infamously refused to issue a chairman's statement at the Asean Ministerial Meeting in Phnom Penh in July 2012 — all because Vietnam and the Philippines had insisted that the statement should reflect their concerns in the South China Sea.

Soon after that debacle I wrote a column comparing that meeting to a situation where ten foreign ministers sat in a room with two elephants. Nine of the 10 wanted to comment on the pachyderms but one, the chairman, wouldn't even glance at them.

One elephant in the room was the discussion of the foreign ministers on the standoff over the Scarborough Shoal — which the Philippines wanted reflected in the paragraph on the South China Sea. Weeks earlier there had been a standoff between Chinese and Philippine ships near that shoal, which both countries claim. It's not the standoff that the Philippines wanted mentioned, but the discussion.

The other elephant in the room was a reference to exclusive economic zones and continental shelves, proposed by Vietnam. Earlier, Vietnam had a spat with China over an area claimed by Vietnam by virtue of the Law of the Sea (Unclos) and by China by virtue of its nine-dash line.

The then-Indonesian foreign minister, Marty Natalegawa, supported by his Singaporean and Malaysian counterparts, tried heroically to cobble a paragraph that would be acceptable to all, but finally Hor Namhong decided to issue no statement at all. He argued that these issues, being bilateral, had no place in an Asean statement — never mind the long-established consensus that bilateral issues with regional repercussions, like the border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia itself, could be addressed at the regional level.

According to historian Donald E. Weatherbee, Chinese diplomats advised Hor Namhong behind the scenes. All observers deemed the washout a diplomatic coup by China at the expense of Asean. Prime Minister Hun Sen stoically shared the blame with his foreign minister.

Valiantly, then-foreign minister Marty Natalegawa launched a 36-hour shuttle and phone diplomacy that produced a joint statement on six basic principles — non-controversial and already long agreed upon — advocating peace in the South China Sea. But the harm had been done. Asean solidarity suffered a huge dent that neither Asean, nor Cambodia has been able to live down.

With the recent departure of Hor Namhong, however, and with the ascendancy of Prak Sodhon as foreign minister, a new era of a more enlightened diplomacy should dawn on Cambodia.

Prak Sodhon's foreign policy views are well known: under his guidance the country is expected to revert to a strong non-aligned stance. These early, Cambodian diplomats have borrowed former Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa's pet concept, "dynamic equilibrium," to depict the country's new foreign policy. This means that Cambodian diplomacy will "rebalance" so that it strengthens relations with the United States, Japan and the European Union, while maintaining a stable partnership with China. Since Cambodia isn't a South China Sea claimant, it will probably adopt Indonesia's neutralist, pro-Asean inclination.

Everything about that cabinet reshuffle augurs well for both Cambodia and Asean. Let's hope that Cambodia will sustain the spirit of reform and political pragmatism that triggered the shakeout. And that the "rebalancing" of its foreign policy will endure.

Jamil Maidan Flores is a Jakarta-based literary writer whose interests include philosophy and foreign policy. The views expressed here are his own. He may be contacted at