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Corruption 'sucking vitality' from country

Corruption 'sucking vitality' from country

RAMPANT corruption at all levels is "sucking the vitality out of Cambodia,"

and costing the country desperately needed foreign investment, says a private sector

business leader and legal specialist.

"Every survey of the private sector in the past four years has identified corruption

as the number one issue for people in business who are paying taxes and trying to

operate legally in this environment," Brett Sciaroni told a public debate at

the Foreign Correspondents' Club in Phnom Penh.

"Corruption is rampant and widespread and has become increasingly worse in recent

years. It's an urgent issue that must be grappled with by the country's political

leadership. We've had enough talking, it's time for action."

A new report on obstacles to foreign investment estimates under-the-table payments

in the manufacturing and service sectors alone at $120 million a year. Sciaroni says

this is just the tip of the iceberg.

He sits on the Private Sector Forum, which Prime Minister Hun Sen created four years

ago to meet twice a year with the Council of Ministers for ongoing dialogue and consultation

on policy and legal issues. He is also a partner in a leading Southeast Asian law

firm and a legal adviser to the government.

Sciaroni said politicians were always talking about introducing anti-corruption laws,

"but the government already has sufficient laws for the purpose. The problem

is not the law, it's implementation of the law".

The forum was suspended after the anti-Thai riots and had not met for over a year

due to the lack of progress on formation of a government. "The forum had an

agreement with the previous government that before new laws, regulations or policies

were initiated, we would be consulted through our working group sessions," Sciaroni

said.

"The political hiatus has cost us foreign investment. For those of us who have

been here a while it has been business as usual, but for potential new investors

there has been a reluctance to commit. They can't understand why it's taking so long

to form a government. New investment has been slowed down.

"Last December-January the Ministry of Finance started issuing new tax demands

and customs duties, and at that point we began petitioning the government to resume

the Private Sector Forum meetings. Our concern is that although it's still a caretaker

government, departments with regulatory authority have started to act and no mechanism

exists for the private sector to have input. Unfortunately the attitude seems to

be that the formation of a government is imminent so nobody will do anything that

might jeopardize their own position."

Sciaroni said forum members constantly raised corruption issues with senior ministers.

"The tax base has to be broadened and that has been talked about for years;

there is a great need for accountability in all ministries because of the huge financial

leakage that occurs. This involves any revenue that the government collects. I believe

donor money merely plugs the gaps caused by the leakage. Corruption diverts funds

from public projects and ministries, and it is in everyone's interest for the leadership

to take some strong action that will start hitting back at the level of abuse we

see today."

Asked what he personally would do about corruption if he had the means and opportunity,

Sciaroni said: "For starters, all the assets of elected members and senior officials

should be on public record."

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