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Laws, Regulations, and Orders – and What Happens in Reality

By: Norbert Klein, editor, The Mirror Posted: August-28-2009 in
Ten Floors Building - higher than 30 meters
Norbert Klein, editor, The Mirror

The Mirror, Vol. 13, No. 626

There is no doubt – according to the Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia, this is a country which is to live as a state of law.

But we are mirroring, almost every week, where laws of the country, or regulations pronounced by the government, or orders given by persons in positions of high responsibility are disregarded. This is a fact, but this should not happen. Of course small or big violations of laws happen in every country. When we mirror quite a number of such violations, we do not focus on what violations of the law are committed just by some individuals. But we focus on examples where violations happen within the structures of society and its administration by the government.

Without being based on a clear definition, the term of a “failed state” is often used in international political debate and in the media reporting about it. This negative term is in contrast to a positive definition of one basic characteristic of what makes a state: a state is an institution which claims to have a "monopoly on the legitimate use of force within its borders" – to use a widely used description in the political theory of states.

When a state loses its ability to exercise the use of force effectively - like at present in Somalia or Afghanistan, where regional warlords, or well organized armed groups, or strong terrorist networks, or pirates operate regularly, and the government is not able to effectively control them by using the legitimate force a state should have. Then the nature and existence of such a state is being doubted. But the term has also been used to describe a situation where not political, but criminal activities become dominant in some geographical regions or fields of society – like in some Mexican border provinces with the USA, where hundreds of people have been murdered by illegal drug trafficking organizations, and the legitimate forces of the state have not been able to control and to put an end to such violence.

In international media there is also a wider use of the term for situations where laws are not enforced equally, because of high crime rates, extreme political corruption, illegitimately applied strong bureaucratic social control, ineffectiveness of the courts, military mingling in politics, or traditional cultural powers exercising more force than the laws of the state (in some cases where the laws proclaim gender equality, but cultural factors maintain the dominance or even violent oppression by men over women).

Cambodia has seen many years of economic, social, and political developments which have overcome the dangerously conflicting situation where different political groupings - and their armed sections - were competing with words and with arms to establish legitimate statehood, with the power also to also use legitimate force. The presence of UNTAC 1992-1993 and the establishment of the Kingdom of Cambodia have brought an end to uncertainty - even as the military conflict with the Khmer Rouge in parts of the country continued until 1996.

All the more remnants of claimed independence from the rule of law, or just its disregard over extended periods of time, cannot be tolerated by a state of law. It is with this concern that the press reports when there is the perception of actions or actors to be above the law, and it is taking up such concerns, when we mirror such acts of defiance against the legitimate power of the state.

Last week, we reported, “The Prime Minister Warns Institutions Where Officials Take Anti-Aging Pills but Do Not Retire." This is serious, because the institutions about which the Prime Minster speaks are not just some small private institutions, but he speaks about people with positions as public servants - employees of the state. They do not only not make space available for younger graduates to move in - maybe the retirement system as such is not taking care of the persons who should retire? However, a state of law cannot tolerate that the law is not being used to provide justice for all. But the Prime Minister adds a revealing observation, “But for officials who have support, have power, and have much money, the computers do not list them for retirement.” Corruptive power paralyzes the proper operation of a retirement system of the state itself, and does so with discriminating advantages for some.

We mirrored that “Community Forestry Committees in Two Provinces Ask the Government to Cancel Land Concessions for Tens of Thousands of Hectares” - as far as we know, there is a official limit of 10,000 hectares per concession. And there are also reports, again and again, that one big Cambodian company has by far much larger concessions. How can the perception be removed that having a lot of resources can make one to be above the law? What is true: Is there such a limit? Or: Is there such a company which controls much more than is legitimate for others? If both these pieces of information are true, there is a problem with the state of law.

There are positive signs. The press carries often reports about illegally cut wood being transported - with locations and dates given, and sometimes also reports about the attack on journalists who try to document such activities by taking pictures - and being attacked for it. Not often we have also reports like the following one: “Action Was Taken to Crack Down On Luxury Wood Worth Millions of Dollars within Three Days, and More Than 172 Cubic Meters of Wood Were Seized - Ratanakiri.”

But how often had the Prime Minister to call for an end to sand dredging - while actually an intervention by local authorities, on the basis of ministerial regulations or laws should be sufficient. But sand dredging still continues: “A Sand Dredging Company in the Keo Phos Region in Sihanoukville Is Violating Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Order to Halt Sand Dredging.” How much longer?

Recently, several Khmer newspapers had reported repeatedly about chicken meat of dubious quality being imported from Thailand without intervention by the authorities. This week we had even a report about the wider extent of such activities: “Law on Food Safety and Quality Is Not Implemented, Making Cambodia a Trash Basket for Foreign Leftovers." Finally it was now reported that 10 tonnes of rotting chicken meat was confiscated and disposed of. Thanks to the continuing reporting in the media, the authorities finally also moved into action.

The press has to be praised to share information with the public, and to raise critical questions, where the authorities do not take the required action in time and on their own initiative, based on the law. Recently it had been reported: “Expert Official: Kompong Speu Deputy Governor and Oknha Tong Seng Constructed a 10-Floor Building opposite the Cambodiana Hotel in Phnom Penh, Violating a Ban by the Authorities” - according to this expert's information, buildings in the area close to the Royal Palace must not be over 30 meters high. Finally, it was even reported: “Phnom Penh Municipal Governor Bans Citizens to Rent Rooms in the Illegal 10-Storys-High Building.”

When the former operator of the Renakse Hotel - immediately in front of the Royal Palace - got her 49 years contract retracted, there was also talk that the new owner Alexson Inc., to whom the property supposedly had been sold (we do not remember that there were any reports about an open bidding process before the sale), would demolish the building. What would be constructed instead was never officially announced, but when commercial developers in Phnom Penh took over property in the city, they normally had plans to build business centers or high rise housing. It is surprising anyway that a historical building, in front of the palace, is to be destroyed for commercial use. This will definitely be a much more serious intervention into the environment of the Royal Palace than the 10-floors building hundreds of meters away, in front of the Cambodiana Hotel.

What is highly surprising, however, is the fact that the construction of this building was going on for many months - and after the bare construction had been finished, work was going on to equip the building and to paint it. But the authorities in charge of supervising all construction activities in the capital city did not intervene, Only now, after the building is finished, questions are raised. How comes the authorities did not realize a problem much earlier? Who is responsible fo rthis oversight? Which laws will be applied to call the persons who failed to responsibility?

The media had also raised similar questions about the timing relation between the planning of the new building for the Council of Ministers - and the harsh criticism not only for poor workmanship, but also for its internal layout and its external access arrangement. As a result of such observatins at the end, its originally intended use will not be realized. The media, which asked for some explanation, for the public, at that time, were left guessing. Even so, the hope always continues that there will be more openness in sharing information - a natural feature for any successful democratic state.

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