WHEN the Kingdom’s anticorruption law finally passed last March after years in the making, its reception varied predictably across the political spectrum.
Ruling party officials hailed the legislation, with Deputy Prime Minister Sok An calling it “an effective tool to fulfill a serious duty for government and society”. Others lamented the lack of public consultation on the law and worried about the independence of the newly created Anticorruption Unit.
“We are very disappointed, and I think that this anticorruption law will become a law defending corruption,” Sam Rainsy Party spokesman Yim Sovann said at the time.
In a statement released in October, the international watchdog group Global Witness said there were “serious flaws” in the government’s anti-graft strategy, claiming the new legislation “will not stop high-level offenders”.
Ten months on from the anticorruption law’s passage, however, the government has shown a willingness to target senior officials. This week, the ACU announced two of its highest-profile probes yet, with the arrest of Banteay Meanchey provincial police chief Hun Hean and detention of Moek Dara, secretary general of the National Authority for Combating Drugs.
Yet even with such prominent targets in the ACU’s crosshairs, observers are divided on whether the government’s effort is a genuine attempt to combat graft or a simply ploy to further concentrate power in the hands of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
“It can be a smokescreen for a kind of internal fighting,” said Son Soubert, a political observer and former member of the Constitutional Council.
He pointed to 2009, when then-Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces Ke Kim Yan was pushed out of his post in what was seen by many as a strike by Hun Sen against the faction of Senate President Chea Sim and Interior Minister Sar Kheng. The moves against Moek Dara, who serves under Ke Kim Yan with the latter’s new posting as head of the NACD, and Hun Hean, a police chief in a region that has traditionally been associated with the Chea Sim faction, may represent further partisan maneuvering, Son Soubert said.
“It’s the logic of this kind of regime that one of the clans has to overcome the other one,” Son Soubert said. “The rumours of internal in-fighting may be true.”
SRP lawmaker Son Chhay was unwilling to speculate on the government’s motives in the two cases, but said the ACU’s efforts were assuredly not indiscriminate.
“The anticorruption body is not independent; everybody knows that, so the action that takes place has to be selective,” he said. “The prime minister makes the final decision on that.”
Son Chhay allowed that the probes announced this week could spook some crooked officials into falling in line in the short term, but he said that ultimately, the Kingdom’s entrenched networks of patronage would ensure immunity for the well-connected.
“Until people respect the law and don’t worry so much about powerful people, things will not change in terms of corruption, in terms of illegal activity in Cambodia,” he said. “The message of using one or two people to scare the rest is not going to work.”
Others say the ACU’s latest investigations show it is gaining momentum for a sustained anti-graft push.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan called the government’s efforts “a new chapter in Cambodian history”, saying this week’s cases were the consequence of systemic reform.
“This year, 2011, the government wants to address all activity related to corruption. We have a law, we have a unit to implement the law, so it’s a message to tell everyone to [stop] corrupt activity,” he said.
Phay Siphan noted that roughly 100,000 government officials are expected to take part in an asset declaration process over the next two months, though the disclosures will not be public. In November, the ACU arrested Pursat provincial prosecutor Top Chan Sereyvuth on corruption charges, while in December, it released a report naming 30 low-level tax officials that had allegedly overcharged motorists during road tax collection.
Last January, Hun Sen announced what he said was a crackdown on officials involved in illegal logging. The effort was subsequently trumpeted by subordinates and provincial officials, but one year on, no prominent members of government have been prosecuted.
Son Chhay said the largely cosmetic logging crackdown was not a promising precedent, though he added that the premier’s past rhetoric indicates that he may take drug-related cases, in which Moek Dara and Hun Hean are reportedly involved, “more seriously”.
“We welcome that, but we’re hoping that these actions will be firm and will look seriously at any particular abuse of power,” Son Chhay said.
Cambodian Centre for Human Rights president Ou Virak said yesterday that for the moment, it was still “too early to tell” what the implications of the government’s recent efforts would be.
“With an arrest, we’ll have to assume that they’re all still innocent until a court proves them guilty,” he said. “It looks to be a positive step, but I think certainly a first step. Certainly, we’ll have to have more steps to come.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY THET SAMBATH AND SAM RITH