Thu, Jul 01, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Cambodia ends political deadlock

CORRUPTION At first glance it would seem a good thing to form a working government, but outsiders say the parties have merely sent more pigs to the trough

REUTERS , PHNOM PENH

Cambodia's fractious politicians ended 11 months of deadlock yesterday by signing a formal coalition agreement, although diplomats said the deal looked more like a blueprint for bloated and corrupt government.

Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge soldier who has run the impoverished southeast Asian nation for nearly 20 years, and arch-rival Prince Norodom Ranariddh heralded their renewed political union as the end of nearly a year without a government.

Diplomats said a peaceful and negotiated settlement to last July's inconclusive general election was a step in the right direction for a country still recovering from the ravages of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge genocide in the 1970s.

However, having digested details of the deal first announced over the weekend, they said it would pave the way to an inflated administration, hampering efforts at government reform and increasing already sky-high levels of corruption.

"This looks like a classic case of jobs for the boys. The bureaucracy will be huge, massively inflated," said one Western diplomat.

The coalition deal between Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party (CPP) and the royalist FUNCINPEC party does not represent any real shift in the power balance -- the CPP remains the dominant partner.

However, the number of senior government positions has nearly doubled, with the creation of a flurry of new deputy prime ministers and secretaries of state.

Along with five deputy prime ministers -- up from two -- each ministry will have at least one minister, five secretaries of state -- again, up from two -- and five more undersecretaries of state.

"We're talking about a very bloated administration," the diplomat said. "It's going to be so much harder to work with. Who do you talk to when you have so many people at the top of each ministry? Where do the lines of responsibility run?"

Ranariddh, who became co-prime minister with Hun Sen after UN-backed elections in 1993, said it was important the two rivals buried their differences for the good of Cambodia's 13 million people.

"We are bringing an end to the political crisis which has been going on for nearly a year," Ranariddh told reporters after the signing ceremony at the Senate.

"The two parties have signed the agreement today in the interests of our nation," he said.

Hun Sen said he expected the National Assembly to be up and running by the middle of this month, which should allow for speedy passage of delayed laws such as Cambodia's accession to the WTO and the creation of a genocide court for Pol Pot's top surviving henchmen.

However, aid officials, who carry some influence given Cambodia's heavy reliance on foreign assistance, said they feared for the quality of the government.

"This just looks like bad bureaucracy," said one senior aid worker. "It seems that more people have managed to get their snouts in the trough. In this place, government signatures cost money, and this means more signatures."

As well as being among the poorest countries in the region, Cambodia has the worst HIV/AIDS rate in Asia, according to the UN, and is fast becoming a key route for drug smuggling.

Western and regional governments also fear the absence of any recognizable legal system has created a possible safe haven for undesirables.

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