Cambodia’s rapidly normalizing economy will receive an additional boost when it hosts the regional World Economic Forum (WEF) for the first time this week with business leaders looking for opportunities to diversify the country’s fledgling industries.

American lawyer and chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in Cambodia, Brett Sciaroni, said Cambodia’s economy remained the fastest growing in Southeast Asia with annual GDP growth exceeding seven percent year-on-year.

Garments, tourism, construction and agriculture are key planks in the local economy, but he said he would prefer to see the number of industries substantially broadened.

“Well, we’re very hopeful that we’ll be getting more light manufacturing in the future because we do need to diversify the economy. Right now we have a strong agricultural sector and we have a strong garment sector but we want to graduate that light manufacturing from garments to other things,” he said. 

Sprucing-up Cambodia’s image

Across the capital, buildings are getting a lick of paint, parks are being cleaned-up and gardens manicured ahead of the arrival of 700 delegates from 40 countries for the May 10-12 forum with its focus on technology, growth and youth.

Sciaroni said the WEF, which Cambodia will host on behalf of the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), would help improve Cambodia’s image and an international reputation that is often maligned by corruption and issues like human rights.

“Old views of Cambodia are frequently hard to change. So, I think there’s still an impression out there of Cambodia as a war-torn country with genocide and Khmer Rouge and land mines and so on,” he said. “But once people come here, scales fall from their eyes. They see all of the new buildings going up, they see so many developments going on.”

The economy has been a strong point for the ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) and Prime Minister Hun Sen, who is facing commune elections next month and a national election in July of next year.

His heavy-handed autocratic style – often criticized – has characterized the government since three decades of war ended in 1998 when Cambodia was still struggling to shake off its image as a failed state. Since then, Hun Sen has been credited with ensuring national security that has underpinned an unprecedented period of economic growth.

Sciaroni’s sentiments were echoed by David Totten, the Phnom Penh-based director of Emerging Markets Consulting, who said the WEF was a great idea.

“Cambodia isn’t a perfect country, but not being perfect is not the same as being bad. In many industries, in many sectors, you will find vibrant, entrepreneurial communities setting up and running successful businesses and growing them year-on-year,” he said. 

Not everyone is happy with the Forum

Nevertheless, the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and human rights activists are far from convinced that Phnom Penh is an ideal venue to host the WEF.

Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said “Cambodia is one of the last places that a major meeting like the WEF should be held” adding that the human rights situation here is “in free fall”.

He also noted Cambodian authorities were prone to rounding-up poor people, the homeless and sex workers, who in the past have been thrown into detention as part of a so-called ‘beautification campaign’ ahead of major events in the capital.

Hun Sen has also faced international criticism for a crackdown on the CNRP over the past 18 months. Party supporters have been jailed for criminal defamation and other charges while senior leaders have also been threatened with prison terms and legal maneuvers which could bar them from holding public office.

Robertson said the WEF should speak out on such issues while Mu Suchua, a senior CNRP figure, said human rights should be a part of the world economy and country’s like Cambodia should be required to significantly improve before being given the privilege of hosting the WEF.

Spokespeople for the WEF and the government were unavailable for comment.

Cambodia’s youth

Cambodia’s demographics are changing as rapidly as its economy with post-war baby boomers maturing. WEF organizers noted the median age here is 23.8 years and young people are demanding higher pay and skilled work alongside life’s luxuries.

At elections in 2013, the youth vote sided with the CNRP resulting in Hun Sen being returned to office, but with a substantially reduced majority.

Despite the political issues, Muoy Piseth, a spokesman for the Federation of Cambodian Intellectuals and Students, said Cambodia was ready to hold the WEF event and it should improve the country’s reputation and lead to further economic partnerships and investment.

“Cambodia needs investment and cooperation. The lack of human resources and modernization, when compared to other ASEAN member countries, is still a challenge that needs to improve,” he said.

Molyny Pann contributed to this story.

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