Hopes to Change Attitudes With World Economic Forum
May 09, 2017
normalizing economy will receive an additional boost when it hosts the
regional World Economic Forum (WEF) for the first time this week with
business leaders looking for opportunities to diversify the country's
American lawyer and chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in
Cambodia, Brett Sciaroni, said Cambodia's economy remained the fastest
growing in Southeast Asia with annual GDP growth exceeding seven percent
Garments, tourism, construction and agriculture are key planks in the
local economy, but he said he would prefer to see the number of
industries substantially broadened.
“Well, we're very hopeful that we'll be getting more light manufacturing
in the future because we do need to diversify the economy. Right now we
have a strong agricultural sector and we have a strong garment sector
but we want to graduate that light manufacturing from garments to other
things,” he said.
Sprucing-up Cambodia's image
Across the capital, buildings are getting a lick of paint, parks are
being cleaned-up and gardens manicured ahead of the arrival of 700
delegates from 40 countries for the May 10-12 forum with its focus on
technology, growth and youth.
Sciaroni said the WEF, which Cambodia will host on behalf of the
10-member Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), would help
improve Cambodia's image and an international reputation that is often
maligned by corruption and issues like human rights.
“Old views of Cambodia are frequently hard to change. So, I think
there's still an impression out there of Cambodia as a war-torn country
with genocide and Khmer Rouge and land mines and so on,” he said. “But
once people come here, scales fall from their eyes. They see all of the
new buildings going up, they see so many developments going on.”
The economy has been a strong point for the ruling Cambodia People's
Party (CPP) and Prime Minister Hun Sen, who is facing commune elections
next month and a national election in July of next year.
His heavy-handed autocratic style – often criticized – has characterized
the government since three decades of war ended in 1998 when Cambodia
was still struggling to shake off its image as a failed state. Since
then, Hun Sen has been credited with ensuring national security that has
underpinned an unprecedented period of economic growth.
Sciaroni's sentiments were echoed by David Totten, the Phnom Penh-based
director of Emerging Markets Consulting, who said the WEF was a great
“Cambodia isn't a perfect country, but not being perfect is not the same
as being bad. In many industries, in many sectors, you will find
vibrant, entrepreneurial communities setting up and running successful
businesses and growing them year-on-year,” he said.
Not everyone is happy with the Forum
Nevertheless, the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and
human rights activists are far from convinced that Phnom Penh is an
ideal venue to host the WEF.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division,
said “Cambodia is one of the last places that a major meeting like the
WEF should be held” adding that the human rights situation here is “in
He also noted Cambodian authorities were prone to rounding-up poor
people, the homeless and sex workers, who in the past have been thrown
into detention as part of a so-called 'beautification campaign' ahead of
major events in the capital.
Hun Sen has also faced international criticism for a crackdown on the
CNRP over the past 18 months. Party supporters have been jailed for
criminal defamation and other charges while senior leaders have also
been threatened with prison terms and legal maneuvers which could bar
them from holding public office.
Robertson said the WEF should speak out on such issues while Mu Suchua,
a senior CNRP figure, said human rights should be a part of the world
economy and country's like Cambodia should be required to significantly
improve before being given the privilege of hosting the WEF.
Spokespeople for the WEF and the government were unavailable for
demographics are changing as rapidly as its economy with post-war baby
boomers maturing. WEF organizers noted the median age here is 23.8 years
and young people are demanding higher pay and skilled work alongside
At elections in 2013, the youth vote sided with the CNRP resulting in
Hun Sen being returned to office, but with a substantially reduced
Despite the political issues, Muoy Piseth, a spokesman for the
Federation of Cambodian Intellectuals and Students, said Cambodia was
ready to hold the WEF event and it should improve the country's
reputation and lead to further economic partnerships and investment.
“Cambodia needs investment and cooperation. The lack of human resources
and modernization, when compared to other ASEAN member countries, is
still a challenge that needs to improve,” he said.