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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Hun Sen steals show at corruption forum

Hun Sen steals show at corruption forum

"SO what is this conference all about?" asked a former cabinet minister over

breakfast. He was told it was about corruption.

"What... how to do it

better?"

His reply might have been a bit cynical but within 20 minutes of this brief

exchange the Preah Raj Academy's Conference on Corruption opened - with a

whimper.

The first blow was the "no-show" of opening key-note speaker

First Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh.

The second was MP Sam

Rainsy, who presented a stinging nine-page private report on corruption

allegations just two hours after the March 2 conference began.

The

conference was saved by a virtuoso, impassioned closing by Second Prime Minister

Hun Sen.

Hun Sen spoke for more than 90 minutes, delivering the sort of

message that ICORC donors will now expect to hear in Paris from March

13.

Hun Sen said that corruption and human rights questions were not

alone a Cambodian problem, especially within a new administration.

Hun

Sen thanked the governments of Malaysia, Hong Kong and Thailand for sending

their "graft-busting" experts to the conference.

"Cambodia is not the No.

1 country for corruption," he said, though that did not mean Cambodia did not

want to move to eliminate it. "Corruption is a phenomenon that happens in every

country."

He offered concessions, among them an agreement to debate an

anti-corruption law and asset declarations by high officials. Hun Sen also said

he wanted a "strong" press, though this seemed short of hinting his consent to

drop the criminal charges in the draft Press Law, which would have softened to

some small extent the unpalatable sentencing of a newspaper editor just days

earlier.

But he gave a clear warning that should ICORC donors listen to

Rainsy - whom he all but said was a traitor, whose claims were "politically

motivated" and "against the Nation" - and squeeze aid money, then Cambodia would

slide back into its dark history. He even mentioned Somalia as an

example.

"There is an appeal to the international community not to help

Cambodia... saying that (this) government is a professional thief."

"I

think that is too much... I'm not scared to speak to the US ambassador," Hun Sen

said, adding that Cambodia had worked closely "as partners" with the

International Monetary Fund on Cambodia's economic blueprint.

He

mentioned attending a recent confidential, pre-ICORC meeting at the IMF with

Keat Chhon and Ranariddh among others. The Post understands that the IMF was as

candid in its concerns as have been the Western aid donors.

"If you look

to cut assistance because you see problems, that is your right," Hun Sen said,

pointedly at the Western ambassadors.

He said if ICORC accepted the

appeal of personalities that "had gone beyond the Nation" for aid to be cut,

inflation would rise and it would become "a political problem."

Hun Sen

said corruption was a problem that had to be solved because it hindered

development and destroyed the political environment.

In what must land

Rainsy in a whole new mess of trouble, the former finance minister slapped the

administration as "more chaotic and less transparent", with "certain leaders

treat(ing) state assets and the property of the nation as their own personal

belongings."

Western donors have already said that at the ICORC meeting

on March 13 - 15 they are very keen to quiz Cambodian leaders about how they

intend to fight corruption, and defend human rights.

But as the

dignitaries took their places at the beginning of the conference - including

ambassadors Charles Twining (United States), Paul Reddicliffe (Britain) and Tony

Kevin (Australia) - it became apparent that Ranariddh would not be

there.

In his place was a rather bemused Minister of Education, Youth and

Sport, Tol Lah, who explained that Ranariddh was busy.

Ranariddh had

informed organizers only hours earlier he was not going to show.

Foreign

Minister and fellow ICORC delegate Ung Huot was to have been Ranariddh's

replacement, but said he was sick.

Tol Lah said he had only been told to

attend at 7am that morning.

The audience was more disappointed after Tol

Las had finished Ranariddh's address.

"There was nothing concrete about

government policy (on fighting corruption)," said one attendee. "It was very

soft, very disappointing."

Tol Lah began Ranariddh's speech: "I am very

pleased to see so many familiar faces among the audience." And later: "It is

equally a privilege for me to be behind this podium, in front of you, in order

to share some of my personal views regarding the theme of your conference."

Corruption was a big word with a very broad definition, Ranariddh wrote,

a definition that was very difficult to be precise about.

The

government's priority was to make Cambodia a "State of Law", and within that

mandate the Anti-Corruption Law was a high priority, he said.

Ranariddh

said there were three major acts of corruption. The first was when a person

offered a bribe to a civil servant for favors; the second was the person

accepting that bribe.

The third, he said, was subtle and deceiving - a

"gift or honorarium."

Ranariddh said that in "the most developed

countries" officials had to disclose such gifts, or if greater than a certain

value to hand them over to the government.

"Cambodia, as perhaps in most

parts of Asia, because of her culture, the line between true gift giving and

corruption is often blurry. This is not an excuse however, the culture has

educated every Cambodian to be humble, gentle and giving."

Ironically,

later that afternoon, CDC chief and another fellow ICORC delegate, Sun Chantol,

was entertaining Singaporean delegates at the signing of four deals worth in

total $92 million. He said the commissions on similar deals - citing Ariston's

$108 million commission on the $1.3 billion Sihanoukville deal - was a positive

and successful spin-off for the Cambodian economy.

Rainsy used the same

word as Ranariddh - "gifts" - such as the $6 million Fokker 28 airplane and the

$108 million Ariston commission, but described them instead as "dubious" and

lacking transparency.

Rainsy said such business "tips" could be either

above the table or under it - "indeed, there is no rule to say that 'above the

table' and 'under the table' cannot go hand in hand."

Rainsy argued - in

a report clearly designed to be taken up by the ICORC donors - that such "tips"

or "gifts" should be deducted from the original price.

Ranariddh said:

"Government employees have been reminded constantly of the level of moral

behavior expected of them. They are told 'Always be a good team player',

'Loyalty to clients come first', 'Honesty is the best and basic policy', and

'The public should be trusted,' and so on."

Rainsy described the

government's reforms as "so far... impossible because of a lack of political

will at the highest level..."

Twining, after the conference opening,

seemed very reluctant to comment on the upcoming ICORC meeting, though he has

previously been quoted in the Post as having conveyed his concerns to the

Cambodian government about corruption.

When asked whether the ICORC

donors might now grill the Cambodian government about human rights as much as

they would corruption, Twining said: "Oh, I wouldn't want to prioritize

it."

One panelist said this "democratically elected government was the

first to have ever talked about transparency and fighting

corruption."

"But whether anything can be done... or if this is just

talk?"

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