When the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) came in early 1992 to keep the peace negotiated under the Paris Peace Agreements, administer the country and organise the election of a Constituent Assembly, the Supreme National Council of Cambodia (SNC), then representing the Kingdom, met in the Royal Palace. It was the council’s first meeting in the country.
At the opening, then-SNC chairman Prince Sihanouk lamented his independent nation’s loss of ability to govern itself and expressed shame that “foreigners” had come to do it. The other council members, all from the then-four warring factions, concurred.
UNTAC left in September 1993 when Cambodia had a new constitution and a new government. The country regained its independence and sovereignty. Help of all kinds came forth from all over the world to rebuild the shattered nation. But, ever since, one scandal after another has brought this nation into disrepute. The root cause of all these scandals are simple: cheating and lying manifested in the form of corruption and violation of human rights.
Upon its departure, UNTAC left behind some of its equipment for the new Cambodian government. But government officials handled it like “highway robbers”. This highway robbery was followed by a major scandal at the Cambodian Mine Action Centre, where “corruption, theft and nepotism” was uncovered (1999); by misuse of World Bank funds in a project to demobilise 30,000 soldiers (2003); by the theft of $1.2 million of World Food Programme aid (2004); and by misuse of World Bank funds in seven projects implemented countrywide by the ministries of land management, rural development, public works and transport, and industry (2006).
The scandals did not end there.
Not long after its opening in 2007, the Khmer Rouge tribunal, which the UN helped establish, was hit by allegations of corruption, including “an elaborate kickback system in which employees pay a portion of their monthly salaries to government officials in exchange for employment”.
In 2011, a serious case of graft was uncovered at the Ministry of Social Affairs, with more than $5 million stolen from the pensions of dead and retired civil servants. Just last year, the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria uncovered what was alleged to be massive bribe-taking inside the Ministry of Health, which handled its funds. Health officials were accused of taking more than $400,000 in bribes to secure contracts for overseas mosquito net suppliers, and of overcharging an NGO by nearly $21,000.
Cheating and lying are pervasive. Apart from corruption, there is, for instance, cheating in exams and committing perjury under oath at the Khmer Rouge tribunal. Lies and untruth have recently been uncovered in the harrowing stories of sex slavery in Cambodia.
Somaly Mam was telling the world of her and others’ supposed experiences as sex slaves in her noble crusade against sex trafficking – a crusade that shot her to international fame. It was recently discovered that some of those stories, including her own, or parts of them, were not true. She resigned from the US-registered Somaly Mam Foundation.
It is said that a fish rots from the head down, and this proverb seems to apply in Cambodia, when leaders do not even keep their oath of office.
Before taking office, Cambodian parliamentarians and members of the new cabinet take a solemn vow in the Royal Palace in front of the King, the two Buddhist patriarchs and divine protectors of the throne. They pledge, among other things, not to resort to violence to resolve national or international disputes; to combat all forms of corruption; not to exploit national interests for themselves, their families, their clans or parties; and to respect human rights.
Deeds have not been matched with such words when corruption and nepotism are omnipresent; when, for instance, the armies of the then-two ruling parties, Funcinpec and the Cambodian People’s Party, fought for two days in what is known as the 1997 coup; when violence was used to crack down on peaceful demonstrators in January this year; when the country’s natural resources have been exploited by and for the benefit of the rich and powerful; when the human rights situation has remained bad and the country is still under what amounts to “the UN human rights trusteeship”, with an office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in the country and a UN special rapporteur for human rights oversight.
The wrongdoings mentioned above are but the tip of the iceberg. Nevertheless, they show that Cambodians have a character flaw that can stereotype them as untrustworthy people, unfit for positions of responsibility. Action must now be taken to correct this flaw. To begin with, Cambodian leaders must now set a high standard of morality, keep their oath, honour their international human rights obligations and make their words more truthful so as to make themselves trustworthy. They must develop a system of moral values for the country. Apart from helping to improve the character of Cambodians and their stereotype, and the reputation of the nation, these moral values will help make the rulers’ law enforcement task easier and more effective. For, as French sociologist Emile Durkheim said, “when mores [morality] are sufficient, laws are unnecessary; when mores are insufficient, laws are unenforceable”.
Lao Mong Hay is a political analyst