The string of arrests is impressive – a prosecutor, a police chief, the nation’s one-time drug czar – but on the first National Anti-Corruption Day, critics say much remains to be done by the Anti-Corruption Unit, particularly in battling corruption within the upper echelons of government.
Key among the criticisms is the very structure of the organisation itself, which observers argue is structured in a way that shields corruption at the highest levels.
“From an outsider’s point of view, there have only been a very limited number of arrests, which may have been politically motivated,” rights group Licadho’s Mathieu Pellerin said.
“It might be too early to judge, but at this stage, one could worry that their efforts are not a true campaign to combat corruption.”
Indeed, political motivation, or at least sympathies, is seen as one of the key flaws in the ACU’s organisational structure. ACU president Om Yentiang is an adviser to Prime Minister Hun Sen, and the unit itself is staffed exclusively by officials from the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.
“There was a big money scandal at the Ministry of Social Affairs this year,” Pellerin said in reference to a pension-stealing racket operated by officials at the ministry. “But the ACU sort of just shakes its finger and says, ‘Don’t do that.’”
ACU spokesman Keo Remy said it was necessary for the success of the ACU that the best people were put in the job — in this case, those in the ruling party. “Any party in power would naturally not staff the unit with political outsiders,” he said. “We did not select outsiders as ACU officials because we (the CPP) won the election.
“If you want to work in the ACU, please wait until you win the election.”
The ACU points to the high-profile arrests of CPP officials as evidence of its willingness to fight corruption even within the government.
The first took place on November 30, 2010, when ACU head Om Yentiang accompanied police to arrest Top Chan Sereyvuth, the now-former prosecutor for Pursat province. Top Chan Sereyvuth was handed a 19-year prison sentence in May on a conviction of corruption, extortion and false imprisonment.
Another major case involved Banteay Meanchey provincial police chief Hun Hean, who was sentenced last month to four years in prison and fined nearly US$320,000 for soliciting thousands of dollars in bribes from drug traffickers.
Five other high-ranking officials were jailed and fined for drug offences, including Hun Hean’s deputy, Chheang Son, who was sentenced to four years in prison and fined $10,400.
But the strongest show of anti-corruption law enforcement came with the fall of Moek Dara, former secretary-general of the National Authority for Combating Drugs. The anti-drug czar was arrested in January and charged with 38 counts of drug-related offences.
The trial against Moek Dara wrapped last Friday, with an audit of his bank account revealing only a fraction of the money he was alleged to have taken, a fact some believed had weakened the prosecution’s case.
The trial will end with closing statements from December 19 to 23, with a verdict to be ann-ounced about a month later.
The ACU’s effectiveness was also stymied by a delay in the implementation of its underlying Anti-Corruption Law, which did not come into full effect until August 1.
“The ineffectiveness of the ACU comes from the law itself. The ACU has done little because the Anti-Corruption Law only just came into effect,” Cambodian Defenders Project executive director Sok Sam Ouen told the Post.
The Anti-Corruption Law was previously stipulated to come into effect only after the new Criminal Code had been implemented for one year, on December 10, Sok Sam Oeun said.
Although the government later amended the date to August 1, the delay still affected the ability of the ACU to prosecute arrested offenders to the fullest, he added.
While the unit has been chiefly focused on drug-related cases, it recently cracked down on “facilitation fees” — bribes paid to government officials in exchange for public services.
Many companies doing business in the Kingdom in August were caught off guard when the government pushed through the remaining provisions of the Anti-Corruption Law ahead of the original December deadline, making illegal the payment of those facilitation fees.
Irregularities in public services fees abound, including visa extensions, NGO licences, traffic violations, contract bidding and customs procedures. For example, the ACU found that commune police chiefs have paid up to $7,000 for promotions; investors up to $50,000 for project approvals; and embassies up to $1,200 to register with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
As a result, companies scrambled to comply with a new law that stood in stark contrast to Cambodia’s entrenched culture of informal payments. In July, media reported that FedEx had already halted shipments of items over $300 to and from Cambodia until the Royal Government issued a formal schedule of payments.
Last month, the ACU announced that government ministries would be required to submit an official list of fees charged for public services. The list would be approved by Prime Minister Hun Sen, setting a clear standard to determine whether payments involved bribery.
However, the ACU did not stipulate a deadline for submitting the lists, requesting only that they be submitted as soon as possible. Moreover, no arrests were made in spite of voluminous evidence of irregularities and instead officials were merely “warned”.
Secret asset declaration
Another notable ACU initiative was the “secret asset declaration” policy introduced in January, whereby ministry officials were required to submit forms detailing their financial worth in a sealed envelope to ACU. However, the envelopes may not be opened unless an official is suspected of corruption, leading critics to question the policy’s effectiveness.
The asset declaration policy also failed to require a comprehensive disclosure of assets, neglecting items such as bank accounts in family names or foreign jurisdictions.
Tom Boden, of the London-based watchdog Global Witness, said: “People don’t tend to keep assets in their own names if they can help it.
“These are serious issues, because (asset declaration) could be a really powerful tool to identify where there’s possible corruption,” he added.
Global Witness published a report in 2007 that alleged senior government officials were operating a mafia-like illegal logging racket.
At the time, the government responded that the report was merely childish retribution for being sacked by the government as an independent forestry monitor in 2003.
Global Witness employees were later barred from entering the country, and the organisation was effectively kicked out in 2005.
Cambodia ranks low
With sagas like that of Global Witness, observers have not been surprised by Cambodia’s continual low ranking on Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index.
Cambodia scored poorly on the 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index, ranking 164 on a list of 183 countries and scoring 2.1 on a scale of 10 — a score unchanged from 2010.
The index ranks countries according to perceived levels of corruption in their public sectors, including bribery, kickbacks, embezzlement and anti-corruption efforts.
“The ACU is undertaking the most difficult job compared to the other institutions of the government,” Transparency International country representative Preap Kol told the Post earlier this month. “It’s very new, so it needs some time to strengthen [its] capacity.”
ACU president Om Yentiang recently admitted the unit was severely understaffed, to the point that complaints were “piling up”.
Despite scepticism about the ACU’s ability to stamp out corruption in the Kingdom, the path towards transparency and accountability needs to start somewhere, Community Legal Education Centre’s Am Sokha said.
“Ultimately, this is a good model for good governance,” the senior program adviser said. “It is still young, but in principle, it is supporting good law and good governance with information and assistance.”
Royal Government spokesman Phay Siphan on Tuesday said the government was committed to reforming the culture of corruption in the Kingdom.
“We have a two-pronged approach to tackle corruption: educating the public and government ministers about the law, and setting a good example ourselves,” he said.
While the ACU is still in its teething stage, arrests such as Moek Dara’s indicate there is potential for some bite as the organisation grows.