Editor’s Note: Joachim Baron von Marschall, Germany’s ambassador to Cambodia for the past three years, left the country last month and is headed to a new posting in Ecuador. His departure came amid heightened tensions between the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and the main opposition, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). It also came immediately after the July 10 murder of popular political commentator Kem Ley. On July 19, his last day in the job, the ambassador spoke by phone with VOA Khmer’s Sophat Soeung about the problematic political climate in Cambodia today, the current economic situation and why he is cautiously optimistic for the country’s future. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
In the three years of your term, you’ve witnessed both the ups and the downs of Cambodian politics. Is the overall trend of Cambodia’s political development more upward or more downward?
What I see is sort of an oscillation between periods of a fairly liberal relaxed atmosphere and then times of tensions. I’ve seen the tensions at the beginning of my stay here and I see it at the end, but looking at the history since the early 1990s, it seems that there has been these fluctuations a number of times. But, what I believe is that since the last elections, it has become evident that there is a shift of paradigm and that more people than before are willing to express their dissent, more people show that they are critically analyzing and looking at what the government is doing and I think the election result has made that very clear. So I think in the long-term trend—and we are talking five ten years or more—this shift will be felt. In the short term, it may still look as if it’s just the old up and down that we have already seen in the last twenty years.
What do you think is the main cause of this paradigm shift?
The main cause is demographics. It is a fact that Cambodia has a fast-growing population and there are many young people and their number is growing and that will be already felt at the next election, there will be more than one million new voters who vote for the first time. And this young generation is quite demanding that they want opportunities for themselves. They want good jobs, they want a good education. They want to live in an environment of free of fear and tension and these demands will be felt more and more. And that’s what I would think makes this shift of paradigm.
What hope do you see for Cambodia’s democracy ahead of the anticipated national elections in 2018?
I think we need to look at the medium- to long-term in order to come to optimistic conclusions. In the short-term, I would say we have to be very realistic. What I see is a government, a ruling party which is totally determined to stay in power. They have made this clear just yesterday again, when this decree was issued that now also the army, the security forces, which have committed themselves to maintaining the power of the CPP, will play an important role in both the preparations and the conduct of the election. I think these are all very clear signals that there is a desire on the part of the government to maintain the status quo. How much that fits to the image of a democratic parliamentary system, that I leave to the imagination and judgement of the listeners. But I would say again, let’s have a realistic look at things and let’s put our hopes into the medium to long-term development.
How hopeful are you about Cambodia’s economic future?
I think Cambodia, being part of ASEAN and the ASEAN Economic Community, has a great potential and if economic policy or overall politics are being conducted in a clever way, then this potential will bear its fruit in the longer run. I have no doubt about it. Definitely, also the growth rates have been very impressive at least on the paper. But I think we also need to analyze what is driving this growth. When we are doing this, we also need to keep in mind the structure of the Cambodian economy and certain key parameters like productivity. If we are looking at this closely, then we come to the conclusion that even though the 7 percent per annum are quite impressive, one has to apply a certain degree of caution also because it is not a forgone conclusion that this growth will continue. Cambodia is heavily depends on export markets and Cambodia’s economy is also heavily dependent on the influx of foreign capital. That means Cambodia is very depend on external factors also that it cannot control itself. So, in order to get the necessary degree of immunity against the external shocks, a lot has to be done to increase productivity and also to increase diversification of a Cambodian economy and to provide for sufficient domestic demand that the economy will be growing.
Domestic demand means there is more equality in terms of income and wealth. The wealth—and Global Witness has pointed this out, but that was already known before, it was really nothing new, no new insight—The wealth is so [unequally] distributed that it cannot serve the sufficient stimulator for domestic demand. This is by the way not just a phenomenon that is unique only for Cambodia. We see this in many parts of the world. The fact that too much wealth is held by too few people and this also takes away resources that are needed in order to stimulate domestic demand. I think this is an insight that the decision-makers of the country need to keep in mind when they are really determined to keep the economy going and to assure the economy will also grow when external factors shift.
Can you elaborate on what you see as the most pressing economic issues for Cambodia?
Indeed, the fact that Cambodia has reached lower-middle income status is something that is certainly deserved appreciation and at the same time again, like I said with the growth of 7 percent, you need to critically analyze what really determines the status and then you come to the conclusion that it is just the calculated average that has led to Cambodia passing a certain threshold which has been said a definition of lower-middle income status. It doesn’t say anything about how that wealth, how that income that is the basis of this calculation has been generated and how it’s distributed and if we look at the distribution, then we find that there are very few people that are very rich; there are some people who are what we would call a middle class in Western countries—not terribly rich but well to do—then, there is a huge amount of people that are very close to the poverty range still.
If you look at this distribution, then I wonder how you can hope to have a solid and continuous development of domestic demand and domestic growth driven by domestic factors. There needs to be a redistribution of wealth if that should really happen in a way that is sustainable. That means the tax system has to be improved and certainly its implementation has to be improved. It means that also the attitude, the mentality of those who are in the established part of society—that attitude needs to change in the sense of taking on more responsibility for the whole, for the country as a whole.
What is your view of the government’s claims it is reforming?
Yes, there has been a lot talk about reforms and we have seen also a number of steps that one could term as reform efforts. I see it particularly in the area of education. I have seen some of it also in the area of the economy and the area of commerce. Certain operational procedures have been reformed and improved. There’s no doubt about this. But true reform, I think will only come—or a development will come that deserves the term “reform”—when there is a willingness to increase the amount of merit and professionalism in this administration and to decrease the importance that connections and clientele networks play. I cannot see how reform that deserves this name can come about without the shift in that respect.
FILE - Joachim von Marschall, German Ambassador to Cambodia, at the signing of the agreements on Technical and Financial Cooperation 2015 between the government Germany and the f Cambodia on March 6, 2016 at the Council for the Development of Cambodia, Phnom Penh. (Courtesy of German Embassy Phnom Penh)
As the ambassador for Germany, which funds a lot of development projects in Cambodia, are you satisfied with these reforms? I don’t hear that you’re satisfied with it. Am I right?
I think you are right. I wish that many of the younger people that I have talked to, that are brilliant, that are well-educated, that are aspiring, if they were given the chance to actively participate in governing this country, in decision-making of this country and I feel a lot of frustration in these young people that they are not given this opportunity. I feel unless there is a healthy mix of the older generation that brings about experience with the younger generation that brings about dynamism and creativity—only with such a healthy mix, I feel, can the governance system be changed in such a way that we see in a reform-oriented policy.
What is the best thing the post-war generation, who make up some 70 percent of the population, can do to help their country?
First of all, they should stick to their aspirations. They should continue learning and educating themselves. They should maintain the curiosity and their critical mind. And they should have patience because their time will come. I have no doubt about this. When that will be? I do not know. But I feel they should stay loyal to their country in that they stay here, even though this may mean a stretch of time, a period where their aspirations cannot be fully fulfilled but they should keep their long-term goal in mind and never forget that what they do is also for the good of their country and not just for themselves.
Do you think there going to be like a culture shift in terms of aspiring for a more democratic way of life?
I believe that indeed the younger generation is more open to this sort of global influences which also include thinking in terms of democracy and democratic power sharing. Because that also caters to the needs and the aspirations of young people. They want to share power. They want to participate in the power and they can only hope to do that if there is a system that gives them a voice or where they can cast their vote in favor of certain development that they feel they need. So, democracy to them is also something that will help them to reach their goals.
Whether this will really change the political culture in this country in a dramatic way? I do not know. We always have to look at the geographical location of Cambodia and Cambodia is not a country that is located in the West. It’s an Asian country and it is not completely detached from political cultures that are surrounding the country, starting with China in the north but also other ASEAN member states around Cambodia. They have their own political culture, and Cambodia cannot entirely detach itself from that. So, there may be—and I think that is quite fine and legitimate—there may be an indigenous form of democracy that may not be entirely the same as we know democracy and define democracy in Western countries. What I think is important is that whatever we call it—democracy, Asian democracy, Western democracy—that it enables people to share in power, to bring about also political change, to have a peaceful change of government also, when a majority of people so desire. That is important. That change can happen without violence and without bloodshed. Any political system that can guarantee this, I think, deserves attention and deserve support.
Is there anything I didn’t ask that you would like to talk about?
Yes, there’s one thing that is very much occupying my mind and that is how to overcome the present polarization, this present situation of speechlessness between the CPP and the CNRP. I am of the firm view that only if there is a minimum of communication on a high level between the two parties, can we hope that things develop peacefully in the run-up to the elections. I really hope that decision-makers will take careful steps and will not be led by emotions and by hate because what I see is at present a climate that is very much characterized by negative emotions, by hate, by fear, by anger, by doubt, and by lack of trust. And these things can only be overcome in a dialogue. And I wish very much that all parties concerned—and that doesn’t include just the ruling party—will make their level best to overcome these elements because it is this atmosphere that then leads also to things like the murder of Kem Ley and other activists before him. Only in overcoming this sort of atmosphere can we hope that these things will not reoccur.
Finally, do you have a message for the people of Cambodia?
Yes, I would like to encourage all Cambodians to strengthen their belief in their country, their believe in themselves because I can see the potential for Cambodia. And I would very much hope that in a few years from now, this potential would be developed more than it has been developed right now.