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Survey Spotlights Deep Economic Inequality in Cambodia

File - Hun Manet, son of Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen, waves to people during the final Cambodian People's Party (CPP) election campaign for the upcoming general election in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, July 21, 2023.
File - Hun Manet, son of Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen, waves to people during the final Cambodian People's Party (CPP) election campaign for the upcoming general election in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, July 21, 2023.

Incoming Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Manet is inheriting a country with deep economic inequality and widespread financial discomfort, according to a new survey from the U.S.-based analytics firm Gallup.

Though confidence in key institutions such as the military and banks are relatively high — each at 82% of respondents — there is an underlying economic anxiety, particularly when it comes to affording food. That's according to the Gallup survey conducted in September and October last year and released earlier this month.

"The percentage of Cambodians struggling to afford food has fallen from its height of 72% in 2013 but remains persistently high at 58%. Among the poorest 20% of society, the inability to afford food reached a record high of 87% last year," Gallup says in its country report on Cambodia.

"In no other country in the world is there greater inequality between the rich and poor in their ability to afford food."

More Cambodians were positive about the economy than negative, with 47% saying the standard of living is getting better, compared with 27% who said it was getting worse. But that 47% too was among the lowest levels in the region. And only 6% of Cambodians reported feeling that they were living comfortably on their income in 2022, which was tied with Laos as the lowest in Southeast Asia. According to the World Bank, Cambodia's per capita gross domestic product as of 2022 was $1,787, compared to $2,088 for Laos.

Julie Ray, Gallup's managing editor for world news, said that underlying economic insecurity could become problematic for Cambodia's government "if the economy suffers any more than it is."

However, Gallup notes that inflation has fallen from 8% in 2022, when the poll was taken, to 1% in 2023, which likely alleviated some of the immediate economic stress.

"So there's some real challenges economically," Ray said in a telephone interview this month. "The inequality is that undercurrent that you have the haves and have nots. And, of course, there's inequality between the rural and urban areas and in Cambodia. So I think those are going to continue to be challenges."

Ray also pointed to areas of improvement highlighted by the data, such as major gains in perceptions of personal health and health care in the nearly two decades since Gallup started the poll.

In 2006, 41% of Cambodians said health problems were preventing them from doing normal activities for someone their age. By 2022, that dropped to 29%.

"While still among the highest in the region, the gap has narrowed dramatically. The prevalence of health problems is now on par with Thailand, Laos and Myanmar," the Cambodia report said.

Gallup notes in its report that it has not asked "certain politically sensitive questions" since 2017, when the ruling Cambodian People's Party began a crackdown on dissent that has caused many media and democracy groups to either shut down or leave the country.

Ray said the decision to avoid some questions was made in consultation with research partners working on the ground in Cambodia and was not dictated by the government. She said asking people about their opinions of the country's leadership, for example, could draw the ire of the government and "would likely jeopardize the entire project."

"In addition, if we did ask those questions in the field, it could present a safety issue for our interviewers – if they get reported to the local authority for asking them," she added in an email.

Still, a government spokesman took issue with the findings of the questions Gallup did ask in its annual survey.

Theng Panhathun, spokesperson for the Ministry of Planning, questioned the sample selection and other technical aspects of the poll.

He noted that as of 2020, the poverty rate stood at 17.8%, according to the United Nations Development Program — though he said the COVID-19 pandemic may have increased that figure.

"It is hard for me to comment" on Gallup's findings, he said.

Gallup's report was released just weeks ahead of a generational change in leadership in Cambodia, where Prime Minister Hun Sen — in power since 1985 — will hand control to his son. Across the government, ruling party stalwarts are stepping back, in some cases ceding their portfolios to their offspring.

Hun Sen will remain president of the Cambodian People's Party, along with being president of the Senate and chief adviser to King Norodom Sihamoni. And according to the Gallup poll, he is leaving his son with a mixed legacy.

"Gallup data show that in many ways, Hun Manet is inheriting a relatively stable country where confidence in several institutions … runs high, but inequality does too," its report says.

Sun Narin of VOA Khmer provided additional reporting from Phnom Penh, Cambodia.