THE organizers of an international conference on corruption in Phnom Penh next week
can't be accused of pessimism.
They will unveil a proposed law which, if accepted by Cambodia's ruling elite, would
give considerable bite to the so far toothless battle against corruption.
Officials, including the Prime Ministers, would have to regularly reveal their assets
to public scrutiny, a national commission would be set up to hunt "unusually
rich" people whose wealth doesn't match their income, and prison sentences of
up to seven years dished out to those who get caught.
Whether the draft law will get government endorsement, or be lost on the dusty shelves
of bureaucracy, is another matter. One indication may come from whether the co-Prime
Ministers accept invitations to speak at the conference.
At press time, Hun Sen had declined to attend, citing his busy schedule, while Prince
Norodom Ranariddh had yet to give a definite answer.
"If they came, it would be a sign that they will support this effort,"
said conference organizer Pok Than. "If they don't come, we may have some concerns."
As for the law, Than has little doubt that the original draft will see "some
changes" if it is to make its way to the National Assembly. Even if adopted,
another key point is whether the law would be fully enforced.
"Even if the implementation is not 100 per cent, it's still a good deterrent,"
said Than. "And if we one day have people in the government willing to do this,
we will already have the law."
The law has been a long time coming. National Assembly members Son Chhay and Kem
Sokha prepared their own drafts in 1994, which went without debate for months before
the government said it would prepare its own law.
The government's law never materialized. The new draft - based on the MPs' ones and
on Hong Kong, Malaysian and Thai anti-graft laws - was written by NGOs with the help
of government officials and private experts.
The Jurists Council, a government body set up to review laws for the Council of Ministers,
was instrumental in its drafting. Several council members who are also senior government
officials, including Secretary of State for Justice Uk Vithun, will formally present
the draft to the conference.
Another promising sign, according to Pok Than, was that Hun Sen last year appointed
one of his advisers, Song Morissa, to liaise with the law drafters.
The April 25-26 conference at the Cambodiana Hotel is organized by Pok Than's Center
for Social Development and another NGO, the Parliamentary Organization for Social
Development and Democracy, run by several MPs.
Invited guests include the ambassadors of Singapore, Australia, the United States,
Canada and the Philippines, and anti-corruption officials from Singapore and the
The seminar is the second organized by an accountability and transparency project
funded by the Asia Foundation. The first, in March last year, was not attended by
Ranariddh, who sent Minister of Education Tol Lah in his place.
Hun Sen did attend, giving an impassioned speech in which he supported debate over
anti-corruption laws but warned foreign donors not to tie their aid to demands for
action over issues such as corruption.
Pok Than said co-Interior Minister Sar Kheng had been invited to speak at next week's
conference to replace Hun Sen, who was too busy. Ranariddh had sought a copy of the
draft law before deciding whether to attend.
The law - titled "The legal framework to fight corruption" - provides for
a three-pronged attack on corruption.
Perhaps the most controversial part is a requirement that "every State official"
- from ministry to commune level - and "political officials of all levels"
submit a declaration of their assets and liabilities each year.
The declarations would be open for examination by anyone. People who made false declarations
would be guilty of fraud.
Declarations could be sought at any time from State or political officials suspected
of being "unusually rich because of corruption."
Another part of the law would set up a National Commission Against Corruption with
five members, two appointed by the National Assembly, two by the government and one
by the Supreme Council of Magistracy.
The commission would oversee the asset declarations, appoint investigating agents,
report to the government and National Assembly and educate the public. It would receive
complaints, question suspects and have powers of search and arrest.
The other, most important, section of the law is an anti-corruption act to define
and impose penalties for corruption.
People who gave or accepted "gratifications" or bribes "to do anything
related to State affairs" would face a maximum sentence of 5 years imprisonment
and/or a 30 million riel ($12,000) fine.
The punishment would increase to up to seven years in prison and a 50,000 riel ($20,000)
fine for bribery involving National Assembly members, judges and prosecutors and
staff of public bodies.
Any official offered a bribe would have to report it, or face a maximum jail sentence
of six months.
There are provisions for powers of search and seizure and to investigate bank accounts
and safe deposit boxes.
Possession of property or resources "disproportionate" to a person's sources
of income, and failure to "reasonably account for" the excess wealth, could
be used as corroborating evidence in a corruption prosecution.
The law would also apply to offenses committed by Cambodians outside the Kingdom.
Pok Than said the draft law was tough but covered only the "basic, visible corruption".
It was weaker than anti-graft laws in Malaysia and other Asian countries where corruption
was more sophisticated.
The penalties in the draft could be reduced, he said, but it was important that the
main criteria for defining and judging corruption be kept.
While it was easy to be overwhelmed "with the magnitude of the problem"
of corruption, "everything has to start from scratch."
Than believed that pressure from international donors could be crucial in getting
the corruption issue on the government's legislative agenda.
Another factor would be raising public opposition to corruption in the lead-up to
the 1998 election.
"If the international donors cannot put pressure over it, I think the Cambodian
voter will do."