When government-aligned Fresh News reported on Sunday that bilateral trade between the US and Cambodia had increased to $3.46 billion last year, up more than 8 percent from the year before, they weren’t using Cambodian government data.
Nor was the state-run Agence Kampuchea Presse using government statistics when it reported in November that trade with Vietnam was up sharply in 2017, quickly approaching the $5 billion target set by both governments.
And nor were figures released in recent weeks of bilateral trade with Indonesia, Japan and China originating from Cambodian sources. Instead, they were relying on customs data from foreign governments, whose reports are currently the only available source of data for the majority of Cambodia’s trade last year.
That’s because while Cambodia’s trade partners around the world have begun to report last year’s trade numbers for the Kingdom, the Cambodian government has yet to release any numbers of its own for the last nine months of 2017.
“The lack of quality statistics is still a sensitive issue in our country, and this needs more effort for improvement,” Mey Kalyan, chairman of the board of directors at the Royal University of Phnom Penh and a senior adviser to the government’s Supreme National Economic Council, said yesterday.
The absence of timely data frustrates academics and investors who rely on the information. What’s more, amid revelations of massive irregularities in the import and export of several commodities – among them timber, sand, citric acid and, most recently, Wagyu beef – the sluggish reporting does little to quell concerns that much of Cambodia’s cross-border trade goes unpoliced and underreported.
Responsibility for trade data and enforcement falls to the Customs and Excise Department, which is under the Ministry of Economy and Finance (MEF). An MEF spokesman contacted yesterday directed questions directly to the Customs Department, which has no spokesman. The department’s director, Kun Nhem, did not respond to multiple calls over the past week.
Ministry of Commerce spokesman Seang Thay, meanwhile, told The Post last week that his ministry had only received data from the Customs Department for the first three months of 2017.
Kalyan stressed that problems with customs data were common in many countries and, while acknowledging he had heard complaints from “big investors” about the lack of official information, he said he was optimistic that improvements would be made in the near future.
“I believe that relevant institutions are [making improvements], and we acknowledge it needs time,” he said. “We always want faster improvement.”
Illicit or unreported trade has plagued a variety of Cambodia’s industries in recent years.
The Kingdom was prompted to ban sand exports to Singapore in the middle of last year after it was revealed that the city state had imported 77 million tonnes of sand from Cambodia since 2007, while Cambodia had recorded less than 3 percent of that amount as exports. The revelations raised immediate accusations of impropriety in the environmentally controversial sector.
More recently, Vietnamese customs data from earlier this month reported $40 million worth of timber imported from Cambodia, in flagrant violation of Cambodia’s countrywide export ban on timber to Vietnam. Cambodian export data consistently report the timber trade with Vietnam as nonexistent.
Industry leaders in the $300 million rubber sector told The Post last month that they were unable to make a profit due to widespread smuggling of rubber into Vietnam, while the Cambodian Rice Federation said in its 2017 annual report that rampant smuggling of rice into Cambodia from Vietnam threatened the health of the entire rice industry.
At an event hosted by the European Chamber of Commerce just last week, business leaders complained that counterfeit goods flowing unhindered into the Kingdom were eating into their profits. Em Wutthy, a Ministry of Interior official who attended the event, said at the time that most customs officials “don’t have enough staff to check the border checkpoints”.
In one of the more unusual examples, a report published on Sunday by the Nikkei Asian Review asked whether Cambodia could be a “Japanese beef-laundering hub”, noting that the country was the world’s top importer of Wagyu beef, despite the prime Japanese meat – known for its eye-popping prices – being sparsely available in what is one of Asia’s poorest countries.
Imports of Wagyu into Cambodia spiked in 2011 after Vietnam banned the beef. Four years later, a beef-smuggling operation busted in China – which had also banned Wagyu – snagged 13 tonnes of meat that was originally shipped from Japan to Phnom Penh.
The opacity of the government’s customs data is also a source of frustration among academics trying to study Cambodia’s export-driven economy.
Teng Delux, an economics lecturer at several universities including Pannasastra University and University of Cambodia, said yesterday that difficulty obtaining trade and investment statistics from Cambodia’s institutions hindered important economic research about the country.
“The lack of statistics is a problem for conducting research and any study that reflects the needs of Cambodia’s development,” Delux said, noting that the lack of data often forced researchers to use outdated or informal statistics.
“All relevant institutions should strengthen cooperation among each other to gather and produce accurate statistics, and make it easily available for the public,” he said.