For the second time in Cambodia’s history, lawmakers, civil servants and officials will have to declare their assets to the government’s Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU), despite criticisms from civil society figures who maintain that the confidential asset declaration process amounts to no declaration at all.
From January 1 through to January 31, legislators, commune officials, high-ranking civil servants and ACU employees themselves will submit sealed envelopes containing lists of their holdings – envelopes which can only be opened by the chairman of the ACU, and, even then, only in the event of an investigation, ACU official Sar Sambath said yesterday.
Though the process of declaring assets is intended to help the government ferret out ill-gotten gains, rights groups and observers say the law’s gaping loopholes leave more than enough room for corruption to slip through, undetected.
“We have some questions about the way in which we are asked to submit, or declare,” said Sam Rainsy Party parliamentarian Son Chhay.
Chhay said the forms for declaring assets asked respondents to list only physical property, not cash, and didn’t require the assets of officials’ family members – whom he said often keep officials’ money under their names.
However, he added, the fact that the assets are kept secret is most detrimental to efforts to scrutinise them for irregularities.
“I think with the assets, we should demand that they provide access to the public. But they refused [our suggestion],” he said.
“How do you promote accountability in the government if it’s done in secret?” he added.
Chhay maintained that he would be comfortable disclosing his own assets publicly, saying: “I declared the property that I bought. It was no big deal”
Kol Preap, executive director of Transparency International Cambodia, pointed out that the confidentiality of the assets opened the door for a host of pitfalls.
“No one knows how much money or property some official says” they have, he said.
“No one is allowed to touch the envelope unless there is an investigation into the person being accused.”
“They say it’s a matter of security of the person who owns the property, but it may also be political, because the people may be surprised to know how much these officials have,” Preap added.
The ACU’s confidentiality clause also has a “side effect”, Preap said, that turns the declaration into a defence against incrimination.
“Let’s say they declare assets of one million US dollars, but they only have a half million, then that person uses corruption to make up the half million,” he said, noting that if an investigation is then opened and the files unsealed, the initially falsified declaration would validate the ill-gotten gains.
“[The declaration process] tells the people that the officials have disclosed the assets, and in doing so, the person would not be willing to commit corruption,” he continued.
“However... someone may try to make up the money, so that is the weakness of the law.”
In Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index, only 18 countries were deemed to be more corrupt than Cambodia in a field of 183 nations.
The same year that index was released, the ACU launched its first round of asset declarations, a process that was met with hefty criticism at the time, largely because the secrecy of the declaration process.
Despite the secrecy, 10 oknhas resigned from their government posts, rather than file declarations. ACU official Sieng Borath noted at the time that the resignations were not admissions of guilt, but rather borne of the fear that holdings may accidentally be left out.
“There is nothing involved with corruption, but [an oknha] finds it difficult because of his many assets,” said Borath in 2011.
The ACU also came under fire for what was perceived to be a lax enforcement policy towards the declarations. According to the law, those who fail to submit their assets are subject to a fine of up to $500, and a prison sentence of up to one year.
However, the unit’s April 7 deadline came and went with no prosecutions, despite widespread allegations that many had failed to comply.
“I don’t know how much per cent is still remaining, but I know that not all of them have done so, and they are still [coming forward] to disclose their assets,” said Preap.
Despite those people being subject to penalties, he added, “we haven’t seen a case of people being punished for failing to disclose their assets yet”.
Son Chhay, who said he declared his assets in 2011, maintained that the lapses in compliance were largely among the ruling party.
“No one got into trouble,” he said.
“I heard that the president of the ACU sent a letter to parliament saying if you have not declared the assets, you have to do so... but I heard that no one bothered to declare because they were in the same party and did not care.”
But government spokesman Phay Siphan maintained that all declarations were filed without exception.
“I remember three people [who were late], and they called out to them to submit their declarations. They complied,” he said. “Everyone complied; otherwise they would go to jail.”
However, confidentiality and compliance are only secondary to the issue of the ACU’s freedom from outside influence, said Dr Pung Chhiv Kek, president of the rights group Licadho.
“The question about declaring assets is not whether the declaration should be made public, or not – this is [a] matter of discussion – but about how independent the institution which handles [this] information is,” Kek said, via email.
“For instance, the fight against corruption should not be used to weaken opposition or adverse factions, but only to fight corruption.”