Among the promises to come out of the recent donors' meeting was one by Prime Minister
Hun Sen that the long-delayed anti-corruption law would be passed before the end
of June 2003.
Corruption is no small matter in Cambodia, as donors are well aware, and as figures
quoted later in this article will show. However to date donors have proved unable,
and some would say unwilling, to pressure the government.
But at the June meeting, the World Bank's regional head, Ian Porter, warned that
if progress was not made, Cambodia would get less money at the next round.
That is the kind of talk anti-corruption activists want to hear, as those who hold
power are more likely to listen to the people with the purse strings. At the local
level, many Khmers have been at the forefront of combating corruption since 1995,
when representatives of Funcinpec, the Sam Rainsy Party and civil society began meeting
on the issue.
Their efforts are not without risks: Nhem Vanthorn, the executive director of the
Khmer Human Rights and Anti-Corruption Organization (KHRACO), and Heav Veasna, managing
director of the Center for Social Development (CSD), have both been threatened in
the past for speaking out.
Gauging the cost of corruption is by its nature difficult. Back in 1995 the Minister
of Finance, Keat Chhon, estimated the state was losing $100 million annually in illegal
logging and illicit exports of rubber and fish.
CSD's Veasna now estimates the cost of corruption is as much as $400 million a year.
He draws a link between political corruption and crimes against humanity, and foresees
disaster unless the situation improves.
And there is little doubt that high-ranking officials are creaming off millions of
dollars. KHRACO's Vanthorn says the investigation bureau of Singapore's anti-corruption
board has identified 26 senior Cambodian government officials, each of whom has more
than $20 million tucked away there in bank accounts. The Singapore Embassy said it
was not aware of the report.
If true, it means at least $520 million of money is sitting in Singaporean bank accounts.
Whether that money has been gained legally or otherwise remains to be seen, but it
is highly unlikely that Singapore is the only country where money is deposited by
To get an idea of the scale of the sum relative to the country, half a billion dollars
is more than Cambodia received in foreign direct investment in the three years between
"They have asked me not to identify these people by name," says Vanthorn,
"but once the country has an anti-corruption law, they will pass on all the
Perhaps so, but talk of an all-encompassing law has been on the cards for years.
Veasna says there are currently 11 draft laws, which have emanated from diverse sources,
but each proposal that has come before the National Assembly has hit the wall. The
Cambodian People's Party and the royalist Funcinpec hold the reins of power, and
neither is immune from accusations of corruption.
Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodian Defenders' Project (CDP), says
the country's courts haven't heard a single corruption case since UNTAC drew up its
laws ten years ago. The lack of transparency in the workings of government means
finding proof is virtually impossible.
"If high-ranking officials are still allowed to work in secret, there will be
no transparency and we will be unable to eliminate corruption," he says.
Vanthorn says that his organization has finished work on a draft law, helped by lawmakers
and CSD. It must first go to the Council of Ministers (CoM) before proceeding to
the National Assembly.
Whether their law will get that far is debatable, although the government claims
it is making a concerted effort. Sean Visoth, a permanent member of the CoM's anti-corruption
unit, says there are numerous drafts under consideration by different ministries
and the government's attorney. After that scrutiny, the CoM will debate them.
Activists say that is part of the problem: many officials who have gained from graft
in the past are not keen to disclose what they are worth, and will approve at best
a watered-down version of what is required.
And while both Veasna and Vanthorn welcome the Prime Minister's commitment to finalizing
the law within a year, they say civil society is not convinced such a sensitive piece
of legislation will pass the National Assembly so close to the July 2003 general
The country's slide into corruption, says Veasna, began after 1993 when Cambodia
began its transition from a centralized economy to one based on the free market.
That brought with it previously unheard of opportunities for graft, which many took
"Requiring government officials to declare their assets and liabilities is extremely
important," says Veasna of one of the draft's main provisions, "because
it will provide a basis for investigation [into the source of that wealth]. That
is the only way we can do this, and it will provide a good mechanism to combat corrupt
Ultimately all the good work of NGOs and their partners will come down to the willingness
of a majority of National Assembly's 122 members to be transparent. And those in
the fight expect that the political nature of the problem will make approval difficult.
One MP who has long been an outspoken critic of corruption is the SRP's Son Chhay.
He says corruption has become entrenched as a way of maintaining political power,
and he has little confidence that a law with sufficient teeth will go through.
The government, he adds, has no intention of establishing an effective anti-corruption
law, as it would affect too many of their own.
"And if there eventually is a law, the government won't make it retrospective,"
says Chhay, "because almost all the politicians will end up in jail."