Rescue workers search for victims in the debris a day after an under-construction building collapsed in Sihanoukville on June 23, 2019. Photo: AFP

After at least 28 workers were killed on Saturday when an under-construction building collapsed in Cambodia, there must be change. For years, Cambodia’s booming construction sector took on a most extreme interpretation of laissez-faire. Multi-story buildings rush up in a matter of months. Families of builders camp under the unfinished floors. Towers start to go up, are postponed for several years, are exposed to the worst of Cambodia’s tropical weather, and then building resumes as if water damage doesn’t exist. It is a blessing that Cambodia doesn’t experience earthquakes.

Safety standards are nascent, to say the least, even though the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction just eight months ago warned that there was a major problem of unregulated construction sites without the correct permits. At some point, we commentators would say in private conversation, the lax regulations and non-existent safety standards would lead to an avoidable tragedy.

Such an avoidable tragedy came on Saturday morning, when a seven-story building collapsed in the coastal city of Sihanoukville. As of Tuesday, 28 people were confirmed dead and another 24 injured, although the numbers could rise as there are still thought to be more than a dozen people left under the rubble. The building, which was almost finished, had reportedly been rejected for a construction permit, and provincial authorities had twice instructed the owner to cease work.

It is by far one of the worst disasters in recent Cambodian history. It has rightly shocked, saddened and appalled the nation. It has justifiably moved the government to take unusual measures. So far, one senior ministerial official has been fired and a provincial governor has resigned, two extremely rare events in Cambodian politics.

One shouldn’t rush to make hasty judgments after such a disaster. But a few observations ought to be made.

First, this is not a China problem; it is a Cambodia problem. Most coverage has focused on the fact that the building site was owned by a Chinese national, who along with four other Chinese businesspeople was charged with involuntary manslaughter and conspiracy by a local court on Tuesday.

I understand that Cambodia matters in international news because its government is now so close to Beijing. And I get it that anti-China sentiment is rising in Cambodia, and this disaster could unleash even more hostility. Only naturally we see Cheap Sotheary, the provincial coordinator for the human-right group Adhoc, telling Radio Free Asia: “Authorities carelessly allowed Chinese to do unauthorized construction. They don’t take any measures against the Chinese companies, so that creates suspicions of systematic corruption.”

The collapse of the building this weekend has little to do with China. Yes, it might have been a Chinese-funded construction, in a city that is now defined by Chinese construction and investment, but Chinese-funded construction sites are no less safe than Cambodian-funded construction sites (some, in fact, are arguably safer)

But the collapse of the building this weekend has little to do with China. Yes, it might have been a Chinese-funded construction, in a city that is now defined by Chinese construction and investment, but Chinese-funded construction sites are no less safe than Cambodian-funded construction sites (some, in fact, are arguably safer). And Cambodian property owners are just as inclined to break the rules as Chinese owners.

Moreover, blaming the Chinese obscures responsibility. What happened on Saturday was the fault of a system where there is little inspection of construction sites; where there is hardly any oversight from the relevant authorities; and where safety standards are routinely flouted.

Second, the fact is that the Cambodian government has repeatedly issued warnings over unregulated construction sites for the last two years, yet nothing has changed. There are reports, at time of writing, that the minister of land management, Chea Sophara, was asked by Prime Minister Hun Sen to launch an investigation into whether all other construction sites have permits. If they don’t, it would appear that the prime minister wants work stopped at these sites within 24 hours.

“Chea Sophara has to assign the ‘real competent’ experts to provide an accurate evaluation to all buildings that are under construction, and any sites that have no construction licenses must be suspended. We cannot let such a case happen again,” Hun Sen said. Other reports, however, suggest that Hun Sen ordered the creation of a new committee to inspect construction sites only in Preah Sihanouk province. (Voice of America reported that the new committee would “exert control of Chinese building projects.” See how it even benefits the government to pretend the problem is only about Chinese investors.)

But this isn’t enough. It would be the third or fourth committee set up by the government over the last two years specifically to tackle safety standards in the construction sector, none of which appear to have done much good. In July 2018, for instance, the Labor Ministry announced the creation of a new national committee – made up of government officials, non-governmental organizations, trade unionists and employers – to do just that. Yet it was only supposed to meet four times a year. Then, in October, the Ministry of Land Management announced the creation of six teams to inspect and monitor construction projects nationwide.

This came after the ministry, also in October, instructed Preah Sihanouk provincial authorities (and specifically provincial governor Yun Min, who has now resigned) to stop issuing construction permits without the ministry’s permission. It is thought that provincial officials were issuing “in principle” permits, which meant many construction projects began before the ministry could issue the actual permits. Local media quoted the ministry’s secretary of state Chhan Saphan as saying at the time: “There are a number of ongoing constructions in Preah Sihanouk province – some near completion – without the ministry’s authorization.”

This is worth repeating. Eight months ago, the Land Ministry wrote specifically to officials in Sihanoukville to warn them of under-construction building sites that had no permits, and instructed them to stop issuing permits – yet nothing changed. And then, because nothing changed, 28 people were killed and 24 injured last weekend in a site that didn’t have permits and hadn’t been closed despite two official warnings.

It wasn’t the Land Ministry alone that has been warning of the dangers. The Building and Wood Workers Trade Union Federation of Cambodia (BWTUC) has been campaigning for years for the government in enforce safety measures on construction sites. Just two months ago, BWTUC members marched in Phnom Penh to call on the government to address their concerns.

A report in 2017 by the same trade union found that only 40% of respondents said the building site on which they worked was safe and accident-free. And unlike the more celebrated garment workers of Cambodia, construction workers still have no minimum wage; depending on skill, they can expect between US$6 and $13 per day. In January, Hun Sen promised them that he was working on a minimum-wage structure, but we have heard little about that since. (Perhaps because of the outcry following last weekend’s disaster, a new minimum wage will be fast-tracked.)

For sure, the government has moved quickly to contain criticism relating to last weekend’s disaster. Hun Sen rushed down to Sihanoukville on Saturday and stayed there to help with rescue efforts. And people have been fired. The deputy director of the National Committee of Disaster Management, Nhim Vanda, was fired on Monday for “lack of responsibility, and for lying” about the disaster – he reportedly stayed in nearby Kampot rather than visiting the scene after the collapse – while in an almost unprecedented move Yun Min, the governor of Preah Sihanouk province, offered his resignation, which was accepted by Hun Sen on Monday. In Cambodia, senior officials do not resign.

However, Yun Min’s replacement, Kouch Chamroeun, the governor of Kampong Cham province, will have to deal with many of the same issues. There does appear a considerable void between provincial governors and the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning, and Construction when it comes to issuing construction permits, and a general problem in how Preah Sihanouk province is managed. Yun Min’s resignation comes after two of the province’s deputy governors were replaced in March over their handling of a land protest that turned violent in January.

When the Land Ministry wrote to Yun Min in October expressing its concerns about the enforcement of construction permits in Sihanoukville, he replied:

“They accused me of corruption because I allowed other buildings to be constructed without proper permits. They said whatever they wanted to say. I can’t stop them, but I am not corrupt.… We want to help investors in our country, so we help them. However, I will follow the letter from now on.”

This sums up many of the problems. First, there is the money, and the widespread accusation that permits are bought, not earned. The construction sector is worth billions of dollars each year in Cambodia, and it accounted for 11% of economic growth last year. While the sector saw a dip of 15% in investment last year compared with 2017, the first quarter of 2019 alone saw an estimated $2.7 billion invested in real-estate projects, up 67% from the same period last year, according to Ministry of Land and Urban Planning figures. This is a considerable sum of money in a country Transparency International ranked 161st, out of 180 countries, in its Corruption Perception Index last year.

Yun Min also noted that there is a general sense of wanting to “help” investors in Cambodia’s construction sector, which might be interpreted as meaning turning blind eyes to red tape. Provincial authorities “had given permission for projects as investors want them completed quickly and that obtaining construction permits from other ministries will take longer,” the Phnom Penh Post paraphrased him. But the central government also appears eager to cut regulation in the construction sector. While Cambodia slipped three places in the World Bank’s latest ease of doing business index, one area where it improved was in the cost of construction permits.

“Cambodia made dealing with construction permits less costly by reducing the fees to obtain a permit,” the World Bank stated in its 2019 report. One might inquire whether relaxing already slack regulations was a sensible policy, and whether the World Bank should be praising it.

So what should be done? Does the scale of last weekend’s disaster require a considerable review of current practices in the sector? Most likely. Rather than yet another new ministerial committee to review construction permits, which will likely have the same impact as all the past ministerial committees set up for the same purpose, there instead ought to be something larger: an independent investigation of all building sites across Cambodia – and not just on whether they have permits, but whether they enforce adequate safety standards.

It would be better if the government would announce such an investigation and appoint a genuinely independent body to oversee it. But this is highly unlikely, for all the reasons noted above and more. Instead, it might have to fall on NGOs, both international and domestic, to put some serious research into this issue.

It won’t be easy. Last year alone the Ministry of Land Management approved 2,867 construction projects – and that was a bad year, with the number of approved projects down from 3,052 in 2017. Who knows how many sites are currently in operation without a permit and approval, and how many with permits flout safety regulations? My intuition says a worryingly high number.

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