Taking Cambodia to the next level

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen's 30 years in power are undoubtedly a moment of personal satisfaction. He has walked a long road indeed: Serving the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, defecting to Vietnam, helping to unseat his former chieftains, taking the helm, staging a bloody coup to remove a coalition partner, and running the country virtually unchallenged thereafter.

Against the dark era of the Khmer Rouge, Mr Hun Sen's record has been more acceptable to the international community, with the United States lifting a ban on direct bilateral aid in 2007. However, his critics are right to argue that he should be judged by commonly accepted benchmarks and not measured against an exceptionally savage despot like Pol Pot, who was responsible for the deaths of 1.7 million Cambodians. The current regime's reprehensible failure to investigate these war crimes properly - and the draining of US$200 million donated for that purpose - is just one matter. According to Human Rights Watch, a non-governmental international organisation: "Cambodia urgently needs reforms so that its people can finally exercise their basic human rights without fear of arrest, torture and execution."

Economically, Mr Hun Sen deserves credit for ushering in much-needed growth, a process that can be traced to the late 1980s when the Prime Minister persuaded his communist colleagues of the benefits of the free market. Factories are now humming, well-connected entrepreneurs are harvesting natural resources, and there are an astounding 57 casinos (that once thrived due to gambling curbs in neighbouring countries).

For all that, economic reforms have been slow. Cambodian Commerce Minister Sun Chanthol has been urging investors to take advantage of new laws to encourage greater foreign participation in industrial and agricultural sectors. He has also vowed to get the nation ready for integration with neighbouring economies, under the vision of the Asean Economic Community. However, the fact remains that Cambodia is a challenging frontier for entrepreneurs, ranking No. 184 among 189 economies for ease of starting a business, according to the World Bank.

The pace of developments in the region and the expectations of younger Cambodian voters, palpable in the last elections, should, at the very least, prompt Mr Hun Sen to question his assumptions about political change. Demands in post-conflict societies for democratic transition, basic rights and the rule of law are often premised on power sharing and best mediated through strong institutions. If wise leaders put these in place, that would indeed be a significant milestone for Cambodia.