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Cambodia near bottom in gov't openness index

Cambodia near bottom in gov't openness index

Cambodia ranks near the bottom of 102 countries surveyed in a new index of government openness, scoring dead last in mechanisms through which complaints can be lodged against government officials and 98th in sanctions for officials’ misconduct.

Overall, the Kingdom placed 98th in the World Justice Project’s index, edging out just Iran, Myanmar, Uzbekistan and Zimbabwe, respectively.

“Cambodia scores particularly low on complaint mechanisms,” WJP spokesman Matthew Harman said in an email yesterday. “This dimension measures whether people are able to bring specific complaints to the government about the provision of public services or the performance of government officers.”

WJP, a Washington-based rule of law NGO, completed its index by analysing questionnaire answers from 1,000 people across the three largest metropolitan areas in each of the countries surveyed. Cambodia’s data came from respondents in Phnom Penh, as well as Battambang and Kampong Cham provinces.

Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU) spokesman Keo Remy yesterday slammed the Kingdom’s low ranking when it came to punishing misbehaving government officials. Respondents simply do not understand the ACU’s inner workings, he said.

“It is an ignorant report,” Remy said. “We have clear principles, so we completely disregard this report.”

Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan also said he doubted the accuracy of WJP’s index, questioning if people who answered the questionnaires really spoke for the nation.

But Cambodia National Rescue Party lawmaker Son Chhay yesterday said he believed the survey was generous in ranking the nation only fifth from last, pointing to several cases in which government officials were seemingly let off the hook for alleged misdeeds.

Nearly 40 soldiers in Banteay Meanchey last year accused sub-regional commander Plong Dara and his deputy, Keo Senglorn, of embezzling pensions from disabled infantrymen, but the case was never investigated, he said.

In another example, Chhay mentioned the 2007 case of Ly Vuoch Leng, who was removed from her position as head of the Court of Appeal after a Ministry of Interior investigation found her to have accepted bribes. Rather than being fired, she was transferred to serve as an undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Justice, he said.

“We need to seriously hold to account the government every time it rejects [critical reports],” Chhay said. “I would suggest that the government should look into this report more seriously.”

The last-place ranking in complaint mechanisms came as no surprise to Transparency International Cambodia program director Pech Pisey. Ordinary citizens lack a reliable way to lodge complaints, and employees within ministries often fear retaliation for complaining, he said. The difficulty in filing complaints against officials and the lack of sanctions for officials’ misconduct likely correspond, Pisey said.

“The government usually does not have proper staff management mechanisms; some ministries don’t even have codes of conduct,” Pisey said, noting that the apparent inability to air complaints against state officials makes it difficult to accuse them of ineffectiveness or corruption.

“That’s very much correlated: [no] proper complaint mechanisms, which need to be put in place, and the lack of sanctions against government officials.”

In the other three dimensions of open government measured by WJP, Cambodia came in 85th in “publicised laws and government data”, 75th for “right to information” and 89th in civic participation.

The majority of respondents said people in the Kingdom could join any political party they wanted, sign petitions and attend community meetings (at 72, 71 and 75 per cent, respectively). But only 45 per cent said they were able to gather with others to present concerns to local government officials, according to the report.

Regardless of its placement on WJP’s index, Cambodia’s government has recently put an emphasis on transparency, Ministry of Information spokesman Ouk Kimseng said yesterday. This is evidenced by the fact that almost every ministry currently has a spokesperson.

“I think now, more people are starting to appreciate the information that they get, and they understand that the information can be useful for the development of their country,” he said.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY CHEANG SOKHA

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