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Interview: Brian Eyler, director of the Stimson Center’s Southeast Asia Program

Brian Eyler, director of Southeast Asia program, talked about renewable energy sector for the Mekong basin nations at the Stimson Center, in Washington DC, July 25, 2017. (Seourn Vathana/VOA Khmer)
Brian Eyler, director of Southeast Asia program, talked about renewable energy sector for the Mekong basin nations at the Stimson Center, in Washington DC, July 25, 2017. (Seourn Vathana/VOA Khmer)

Brian Eyler is an expert on transboundary issues in the Mekong region and China’s economic relationship with Southeast Asia.

[Editor’s Note: Brian Eyler is the director of the Stimson Center’s Southeast Asia program. He is an expert on transboundary issues in the Mekong region and China’s economic relationship with Southeast Asia. He was a co-founder of the influential website and is the author of “The Last Days of the Mighty Mekong”, published last year.]

VOA: How do you view centralization of power in Cambodia after the national election?

Eyler: By design, Cambodia is a constitutional monarchy that should have thriving political parties engaging in a bigger political debate that is based on democratic values. But I think that the centralization push that we saw prior to the election and after the election is just part of a decade-long trend towards centralization. And I believe that the factor that made a difference this time around... Well, there are few factors. One is that Prime Minister Hun Sen is getting older. He's been in power for a long time and he's concerned about his legacy. And then two, the Chinese influence in Cambodia is providing a layer, a thick layer of information for Prime Minister Hun Sen so that he can rest on that bubble of support from China and not worry about the pressure from opposition parties or from development partners like the United States or Australia or Japan and the EU.

VOA: What are the implications of that on good governance and on centralizing power in Cambodia?⁠

Eyler: I think that there are many reasons to be concerned about the future of good governance in Cambodia. The healthy opposition party—the one identifying the political issue. And certainly, the Cambodian National Rescue party was the force that identified very important issues related to land-grabbing, related to dams, the Cardamom mountains, and on the Mekong. And also a healthy opposition can help identify ways forward. So regardless of political meaning, let's say, officials in various ministries within the Cambodian government will be paying attention to those solutions. Again, without that healthy opposition party, who will drive the important conversation forward?

VOA: So what are the implications of a single-party state?

Eyler: I think the important distinction is to think about how that will be different from the previous government. The CPP through a coalition or through outright victory from the election has always found a majority in parliament. So it's been able to push its own policy through for its own benefits. Well, that's right. There won't be that much of a change there. I think what will be more revealing and it is something that will be interesting to watch is the internal discussion within the CPP. We can't imagine that the CPP or party members think the same way. So will there be a rift? Will there be a kind of a crack in the party? That will be exposed through having all the seats of the parliament.

VOA: Do you think the Cambodian government has enough capacity to manage or to improve its own governance?

Eyler: No, I don't think so. I think that this flood of investment and aid from China is very much unlike a stream of development support from other countries which had conditions attached to it. That was focused on improving the human rights situation, improving democracy, and Cambodia. What comes from China doesn't require any of that. And we can imagine that a large portion of it again has been fed right into that network of elites in Cambodia. When Chinese investment and resources come in, they come in with a certain way of looking at development. And that's very much formed by China's own development pathway. And so what we see happening is kind of China's way of development happening in Cambodia and that can be harmful to the economy, for the environment and individuals overall.

VOA: Many people suggest that the investment from China should be harmful to Cambodian society and the Cambodian economy. Do you have any suggestions for the government to address the issue?

Eyler: Investment decisions should be made on Cambodia's comparative advantages--the robust manufacturing sector, emerging smart agricultural sector, perhaps renewable energy, are areas that are ripe to receive investment. But if the investment is flowing out of China in the form of 'hot money' and being laundered in Cambodia, again that is something that is detrimental to the country's development.

VOA: If the government wants to take money from the West when the money comes with conditions, do you think it is harder to develop the country than the money from China?

Eyler: I'm not convinced that when China invests in Cambodia that Cambodia's stakeholders are determining how investment is spent. I believe that whoever is investing and providing [aid] or Foreign Direct Investment to Cambodia, there are outside forces that are imposing conditions on how that investment is spent, regardless of its origin.

VOA: We have heard so many times that Cambodia said China is a ‘good friend’ and they get money from China and China didn't ask for anything in return. What do you think about that?

Eyler: I don't agree that there are no strings attached to Chinese investment.⁠ I think that there's internal trading for political benefits for both China and Cambodia. China being a deep friend of Cambodia helps China make political wind in ASEAN. And we've seen this time and time again, particularly in 2011 when ASEAN failed to produce a communique on the South China Sea and Cambodia was at the heart of that as the host of the ASEAN summit. And we can observe kind of broadly sectoral impacts of, say, the need to have better electricity access throughout the country and cheap electricity prices the government asked China to build the Lower Sesan 2 dam. And that dam has now been built, the electricity prices have not been lowered in the country. At the same time, I believe there's internal trading to, say, open up other sectors to Chinese investment. So the Lower Sesan 2 dam serves the political need for Prime Minister Hun Sen. And as a trade-off, the real estate sector was opened and a flood of money came into the country. So we're looking at the trading of resources for benefits. And in a way that's done very much behind the scenes.

VOA: Do you think in the long run, it will be good for the Cambodian economy?

Eyler: It really depends where the project is whether it will be beneficial for the economy. The location of hydropower projects in Cambodia should be very carefully considered given the proximity of those projects to the Tonle Sap and the Mekong floodplain. Wrong placement of a dam could wreck the basic food needs of Cambodians since over 300,000 tons of fish come out of the Tonle Sap every year. All of that goes to human consumption. And it translates into something like 60 percent or 70 percent of all the protein that Cambodians consume. Again if it's an energy project, whether it's a coal-fired power plant or a dam or a solar plant or wind plant, if properly studied and environmental impact is properly considered, then surely this will help move Cambodia's development forward.

VOA: If we don't have the dam projects, how will the country boost its productivity?

Eyler: First of all, Cambodia lacks a country-wide grid. And that's one of the reasons why the price of the electricity is so high. And you look at the Lower Sesan 2 dam. It's like 300 kilometers from Phnom Penh, 250 km from Phnom Penh. That's quite far away. And that power is supposed to supply Phnom Penh. When it was plugged in, there was no impact on the price of electricity in Phnom Penh. So clearly more energy generation output is needed. And energy can be generated not only through hydropower but by other forms of generation. So a broad mix needs to be considered. It's important to consider emerging forms of renewable technology like solar, wind, bio-fuel, biogas, that can help bring the price of electricity down.

VOA: The Cambodian government says it does not have the money to invest in renewable energy. Where can the money come from?

Eyler: It should come from private investment and be acted upon as a commercial opportunity by private investors. The Cambodian government can invest in the architecture or infrastructure that would drive this forward. Certainly, the government is going in that direction. As we saw in April, the new parks unveiled on solar power investment and more solar is being built and that's considered the future development within Cambodia. So even though we're talking about the price of the hydropower, the price of coal and the price of solar in 2018, we need to be thinking further out into a 5-year window, a 10-year window, thinking about what those prices will be then and building a diverse energy based on those prices.

VOA: What are your suggestions for the new government regarding inclusive development?

Eyler: The new government needs to keep engaged with the civil society, academia, international experts from China and from the rest of the world on Cambodia's development needs. It is the communities on the Tonle Sap that are most aware of how upstream dams and climate change and overfishing are impacting their livelihoods. And because this is an important resource base in the country, the new government needs to pay attention and to keep close contact with those communities. And you can do that only through robust engagement with civil society and development partners. So while the lines of communication were neutered or narrowed, running off to the July election, those lines, those channels of communication need to be re-established and widened in order to move sustainable development forward.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.