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Political Conflicts Stunt Cambodia's Fiscal Growth

July 05, 1997|SONNI EFRON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Three years ago, the village just across the Mekong River from Cambodia's capital consisted of: three restaurants serving cheap Vietnamese pancakes; one small market; acres of flooded lotus-root and vegetable fields; and some thatch-and-wood houses on high stilts along the riverbank.

It was accessible only by ferry after Khmer Rouge guerrillas blew up the only bridge in 1973.

Then came the Japanese, who finished rebuilding the bridge in 1994. Now more than 75 restaurants have sprung up along a crowded strip that locals have dubbed "Vietnamese Pancake City," a booming culinary mecca for Cambodia's emerging middle class and an indicator of economic rebirth after more than two decades of civil war.

The thatched-roof houses remain, but many are festooned with Christmas lights and signs for imported beer. Giant pagoda-style restaurants, some seating more than 1,000, offer Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese, European and Khmer food to well-dressed customers who drive up in late-model imported cars. Performances of pop and traditional Khmer music are punctuated by the beeping of cellular telephones.

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Cambodia's tiny economy swelled 6% last year, outpacing that of South Korea and equaling the growth rates of Hong Kong and Myanmar.

But progress has not been nearly fast enough to suit Va So Van, 38, a police officer who arrived for dinner this week in a 1985 Toyota Camry with his wife and two children in tow.

"Cambodia has developed, but not like neighboring countries," Van said, blaming the political deadlock created by two rival prime ministers--Prince Norodom Ranariddh and Hun Sen--locked in an increasingly violent feud. "Without political conflict, the economy would be growing much faster."

Despite nearly $3.5 billion in international aid that has been poured into this country since the U.N.-sponsored peace accord of 1991, Cambodia may still be a political disaster area.

But it is not an economic basket case.

Inflation has been tamed from 150% in 1991 to between 5% and 6% now. Growth, after inflation, is expected to continue at 6% to 7% a year.

The exchange rate is stable, foreign exchange reserves have soared, and, although defense still eats up more than half the nation's budget, government spending is under control.

While massive foreign aid has certainly helped here, a World Bank report recently declared that Cambodia's achievements "are remarkable when compared with the experiences of other post-conflict countries such as Angola or Mozambique."

Economists point to a red-hot street economy, including the palatial new eateries in Pancake City--nicknamed for the ubiquitous stuffed rice-flour crepes served there--as one of the most positive portents for Cambodia's future.

Mathew Varghese, a World Bank official working in the Cambodian Ministry of Planning, estimated that the informal economy may be growing at 15% or 20% a year.

According to the World Bank, Cambodia remains one of the poorest countries in Asia. Per capita income last year was $300, and 39% of Cambodia's 10.7 million people live in poverty.

Certainly, it suffers from a full complement of familiar Third World problems, as well as some unusual ones: paralyzing factional strife, bloated bureaucracy, inability to collect taxes, endemic corruption, a growing gap between urban rich and rural poor, a high birthrate, a land mine problem that will endure for decades, forests that will be denuded within 35 years if logging continues at its current pace and the traumatic legacies of genocide.

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Still, progress has been enormous, and many Cambodians and Westerners agree that the economy is on the runway and ready for takeoff--if only the politicians would get out of the way.

"This country has no long-term economic problems if politics and governance can be solved," said Scott Leiper, who heads the United Nations' Cambodian Rehabilitation and Regeneration Project. "It has a small population in a very dynamic economic region. . . . It could easily develop small-scale enterprises."

But Cambodians of all political stripes are now united in the fear that the deteriorating political climate will scare off the tourists and investors they so desperately need.

The two prime ministers have repeatedly promised to curb their conflicts and cooperate--but then immediately resume accusing each other of nefarious deeds, including plotting to kill the other.

On Wednesday, fighting between two military units said to be loyal to the rival prime ministers broke out again about 15 miles north of the capital, closing the main highway leading west from Phnom Penh to Battambang.

The incident reinforced fears that the general election scheduled for May 1998 could be bloody--if the dysfunctional coalition government can hold until the election.

It was symptomatic of the chaos and tension here that high-ranking officials in the two political camps put out at least three contradictory versions of the clashes.

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