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Would-Be Critics Quiet on Telecom Rates

Financial experts here say Cambodia’s political environment has prevented them from investigating the impact of a price floor on telecoms, one of the country’s most lucrative sectors.

By Sunday, all nine mobile phone companies had raised their per-minute rates to meet a standard cost mandated by the ministries of Finance and of Telecommunications, which they said was necessary to prevent a price war.

Costs for Cambodian consumers is now $0.05 to $0.06 per minute, a jump from some of the promotional offers of newer phone companies, some as low as nothing.

Analysts say the ministerial directive is contrary to the investment law and the policies of a free economy, but they are not willing to push further to learn how it might impact consumers and the market.

“If you speak against something, you will be considered as an attacker from an opposition party,” said Chan Sophal, head of the Cambodian Economic Association, an organization of 60 economists. “The bad environment makes these intellectuals not brave enough express themselves.”

Some 500 Cambodian economists can be find working at government institutions, in civil society and for international finance agencies. But few ever seek to intervene in government economic policies, unlike economists in neighboring countries like Thailand and Vietnam.

Chan Sophal said the government is not open to comments on its economic policies. The telecom price floor, for example, was implemented silently, and only by ministry officials, without public debate, he said.

“As independent economists, we want to provice recommendations,” said Chheng Kimlong, an economics professor at the University of Cambodia. “But we can only talk and our suggestions will not be considered.”

“Especially, the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications was known to be careless of other suggestions, but they will issue any directive without accepting any recommendations,” he said.

Government officials reject such accusations.

Telecom Minister So Khun said his ministry had consulted with “many” experts before issuing the directive, though he would not elaborate or name them.

“We welcome all [suggestions], but we can’t answer whether the suggestions can be considered positive or negative,” he said. “My team will check and tell them what to do.”

Thun Saray, president of the rights group Adhoc, said the government remains prickly in the face of criticism from independent organizations—a disservice to economic development.

Ros Khemara, another member with the Cambodian Economic Association, said that in order to be professional, economists should make sure they extensively research. This is hard to do, he said, if they know their results will be ignored by the government.

Business lawyers, too, can find the environment challenging, said Ly Tay Seng, president of HBS Law Firm and Consultants.

“There are not many lawyers who want to express their opinion against the government, because they are worried it will impact their business,” he said.