'In today's Cambodia, the God of
Impunity reigns side by side
with the King of
Monthly Bulletin of
King Norodom Sihanouk, March 1999
In the first of a three part series on corruption in the Kingdom,
Phelim Kyne examines the nature of Cambodia's corruption and how
it has evolved over the past half century
Visitors to Cambodia need
not wait long after arrival for hints of the Kingdom's pervasive
From the visa officers at Pochentong Airport who provide
"express service" to passports with five bucks folded inside to the multiple
informal "tolls" exacted from taxi drivers at roadside military checkpoints,
scams to produce financial grease for the wheels of the Cambodian civil service
and the palms of its employees are as innovative as they are
In contemporary Cambodian society, paying kickbacks to
officials of all stripes isn't just one way of negotiating the various levels of
the Kingdom's underpaid bureaucracy, it's become the only way.
plush suites to side streets, virtually everyone in Cambodia is on the take.
Asking for or paying bribes is now a Cambodian norm rather than an
While a small, upper level government elite rakes in millions
of dollars at a penstroke to facilitate everything from illegal logging to
importation of poisonous wastes, for the majority of Cambodians at street level,
finessing the shorthand of corruption has become an essential survival
In today's Kingdom, honesty has become a liability, a sure route
to impoverishment; those who aspire to higher positions in life must be prepared
to pay to get there. Once acquired, however, those higher positions pay for
themselves by becoming a lucrative conduit for bribes from lower
In a paper presented at an international anti-corruption
conference held in Bangkok in April, Cambodia's Centre for Social Development
described corruption in the Kingdom as "...widespread throughout the government
bureaucracy, including teachers who demand payments from students, health care
workers who won't treat people unless bribes are paid, police who put the
squeeze on motorists and businesses, and judges who demand payoffs in return for
favorable rulings in court."
CSD Director Heav Veasna emphasizes the
unique virulence of Cambodia's corruption problems.
"Corruption is a
worldwide phenomenon," acknowledged Veasna, "but in Cambodia corruption is
institutionalized from bottom to top, top to bottom."
The good news,
according to Martin Godfrey, Research Coordinator of the Cambodian Development
Research Institute, is that Cambodian corruption has yet to rank with that of
more infamous kleptocracies such as Nigeria and Indonesia.
no systematic comparison of corruption in Cambodia [with that in other
countries]," Godfrey admitted, "but there are a lot of places that make Cambodia
look good [in terms of corruption]."
Godfrey's appraisal of the
relatively benign nature of Cambodian corruption provides cold comfort for Sam
Rainsy Party MP and veteran anti-corruption campaigner Son Chhay.
my point of view, Cambodia's [corruption] is the worst in Asia," Chhay says. "In
general, at least 70 percent of [Cambodia's] national revenue is lost to
Chhay is not alone in his concern about the gravity of
Cambodia's corruption woes.
In 1997 the International Monetary Fund
canceled US$60 million in loans to the Kingdom in a response to widespread
official collusion in illegal logging. The IMF, miffed at seeing annual losses
of over $100 million in timber revenues to the government till, packed up its
office and left town.
More dramatically, the connivance of corrupt
Customs and Camcontrol officials resulted in last December's dumping of 3000
tons of Taiwanese toxic waste in the coastal city of Sihanoukville, which
directly or indirectly led to the deaths of at least seven people.
months later, Prime Minister Hun Sen was served notice at the Tokyo meeting of
Cambodia's international donors that corruption concerns were now part of the
calculus by which future foreign aid would be weighed, particularly where it
related to the destruction of the Kingdom's natural resources.
The Roots of the Rot
Corruption is far
from a new phenomenon in Cambodian society. As historian David Chandler notes in
The Tragedy of Cambodian History, in the post-independence period of the 1950s
and 1960s, "...endemic unpunished corruption affected nearly all official
Like their contemporary counterparts, civil servants of that
period linked public services to bribes, cynically referred to as "bon jour".
"For any kind of government service, money changed hands," Chandler notes.
"People's contacts with the government were almost always occasions for bon
Khmer Institute of Democracy executive director Lao Mong Hay, who
himself worked for the Ministry of Finance in the 1960s, describes the "bon jour
system" as "part of the culture of the1950s and 1960s".
officials delivered services, people paid [bon jour] because they were
grateful," Mong Hay explained. "People didn't understand in those days the idea
of human rights, that those services were rights, not favors that had to be paid
Although even in the 1960s an estimated 30% of revenue destined for
government coffers "went into the pockets of tax collectors, customs officials,
policemen and other officials," Mong Hay contends that corruption at that time
was far less a burden on society than it has become in the
"There was restraint [applied to official corruption] that no
longer exists," Mong Hay said. "Corruption was still manageable."
"restraint" that served to limit excesses of official corruption in the 1960s
Mong Hay attributes to a reliable government pay structure that reduced the
incentive for serious abuses.
"All government officials [at that time]
were paid basic living wages, with extra paid to teachers and [rural]
agricultural officials," Mong Hay said.
Mong Hay also credits an
independent judiciary inherited from the French that "had checks and balances
and directives that had to be stuck to", coupled with a consensus of "moral and
ethical values toward earning and living" as factors that helped suppress the
kind of rapacious corruption that flourishes today.
The establishment of
Lon Nol's Khmer Republic in 1970 signaled a decisive departure from what Mong
Hay describes as the "live and let live" corruption that defined the
The progressive disintegration of Cambodian civil society wrought
by the escalating Khmer Rouge insurgency, combined with the massive US military
and financial aid supplied to fight it, elevated government corruption to
heights previously unknown.
"In 1973 ... several new provinces were
created in order to create new governorships, themselves paid for by applicants
who, given power over areas they never visited, could siphon off funds intended
for these regions," David Chandler notes in The Tragedy of Cambodian History.
"Governors sold arms and ammo to rebels, and army units, in many cases manned by
12-year old boys, were at half strength but paid in full."
argues that the vast scale of corruption during the Lon Nol regime and its
deleterious effects on the Cambodian public played no small part in the eventual
triumph of the Khmer Rouge in April 1975.
"The degradation of Cambodia
[by corruption] made it easier for the Communists to gain recruits and easier
for those who watched the country coming apart to hope and even insist that the
[Khmer Rouge] rather than the 'old society' offered a viable future to the
In the totalitarian communist state of Pol Pot's
Democratic Kampuchea and the early days of the People's Republic of Kampuchea
regime that followed it in 1979, government corruption was effectively
A combination of strict government centralization of the
economy and a tight state security apparatus made opportunities for government
corruption as rare as they were dangerous.
In 1989, however, hints of an
end to the country's command economy raised by the first Paris Peace Conference
sparked a renewal in large-scale government corruption reminiscent of that which
occurred in the Lon Nol era.
"Cambodia reached this level of corruption
through a unique association between [the then-governing] communists and the
Mafia," explains former Cambodian Finance Minister Sam Rainsy.
to Rainsy, elements "with links on the fringes of legality" were recruited to
lend their free market "economic expertise" to government efforts to sell off
Rainsy names Teng Bun Ma as "one of a number of businessmen
and families" who prospered from sales of state assets of dubious
"Under the label 'privatization', the government started
selling state assets with no transparency," Rainsy says.
"This created a
symbiotic relationship between the communists who held political power and the
Mafia who held the economic power."
The aftermath of the UNTAC-sponsored
election of 1993 caused a steep acceleration in government corruption encouraged
by the uneasy power-sharing agreement between the CPP and
"Some members of the  government...wanted money to live
in 'high class style'," says Veasna.
"The sale of state assets
accelerated and illegal logging increased as [logging] contracts were awarded to
big companies so officials could get 'commissions'."
The widespread, brazen
government corruption that has characterized the Kingdom's public life over the
past decade is blamed for having a corrosive effect on traditional Khmer value
systems, already pummeled beyond recognition by the Khmer
"Corruption has become a 'second culture' for Cambodians," says
Kao Kim Hourn, Executive Director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and
Peace. "Nowadays it doesn't matter how you get money; if you have money you're
Kim Hourn's assessment of the impact of corruption on the
nation's morals is reflected in the first scientific survey of the Cambodian
public's attitudes toward corruption conducted by the Center for Social
Development in 1998.
The survey found corruption "deeply ingrained" in
Cambodian society, with 84% of those surveyed regarding corruption as a "normal"
way of doing business.
A full 59% of those surveyed found vote buying
acceptable and stated the belief that "given the opportunity, most people would
"Cambodians think corruption is a normal way of
life," says Veasna.
Cambodians don't recognize [the concept] of private
property - the idea that this table is mine- anymore," adds Mong Hay. "They feel
no sin about committing corruption and theft."
The end result of
Cambodian corruption, warns SRP MP Son Chhay, is a rapid "social disintegration"
that threatens the country's very existence.
"I never saw mothers take
daughters to sell [their] virginity, or saw people kill each other for a
bicycle, but that's become normal now," he says.
"Corruption has sucked
the country dry ... this is not the Cambodia I used to know."
Naming the beast, defining the crime
A 1995 Draft Law on the creation of a National Anti-Corruption Law for the
Kingdom defined corruption as:
a) An act by a government official
or employee of any rank in which such person uses his position to gain some
benefit for himself, another person or a legal entity through the
- taking of state property
- taking of the property of another
- acceptance of a bribe, inducement or gift of any kind at any time in
exchange for conferring some benefit on another person
b) An act by a private individual who offers a bribe, inducement or
gift of any kind.
This explicit definition of corruption was later
dropped for no reason from a revised version of the draft law. The draft law
itseelf has been stalled at committtee level for five years.
Predators and survivors: the shades of Cambodian
Those concerned with the detection and measurement of Cambodian corruption
carefully delineate between high and low level government corruption.
make a distinction between predatory corruption and survival corruption,"
explains former Minister of Finance Sam Rainsy.
According to Rainsy, the
huge profits generated by high level government corruption and its resultant
impact on society make it quantitatively and ethically different from the
corruption practiced by low level civil servants.
uses 'survival' as an excuse to get millions of dollars from one signature,"
Rainsy explained. "Survival corruption is [illegally deriving] a few dollars
just to survive."
Rainsy in no way overstates the role of corruption by
low level civil servants as an essential method to supplement hopelessly low
According to the Center for Social Development. "...the
overriding problem [fostering corruption] is that while the cost of living is
over US$300 per month, the average [government] wage is less than US$20."
Based on the reality of the Cambodian civil service pay structure,
Martin Godfrey of CDRI suggests that it is inappropriate to tar struggling
low-level civil servants as corrupt. "It's a misnomer to call it 'corruption',"
Godfrey explained. "They're paid so little that if they don't find another way
to make money, they don't survive."
While acknowledging the role of low
salaries in the endemic corruption in the country's civil service, veteran
anti-corruption campaigner and Secretary of State for the Ministry of Education,
Youth and Sports, Pok Than, warns that underestimating the corrosive effect of
"survival corruption" is as dangerous as overlooking the excesses of "predatory
"In my research, petty corruption, even if it doesn't take a
lot of money, added together has a big impact on the whole society," Than said.
He points out that even relatively innocuous roadside shakedowns of motorists by
policemen have far-reaching effects on the broader society.
that fruit and vegetables from Battambang are so expensive [in Phnom Penh] is
that the delivery trucks have to pay bribes all the way down. Even 'small'
corruption attacks all people's lives in society."