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Cambodia's kingdom of corruption: trying to find ways to turn the tide

Cambodia's kingdom of corruption: trying to find ways to turn the tide

'Everyone in the government

is afraid that if this [anti-corruption] law is passed, they'll all be affected'

- SRP MP Son Chhay

In the third and final article in a series focusing on the problem of corruption

in Cambodia, Chea Sotheacheath and Phelim Kyne look at proposed measures

designed to start bringing the Kingdom's culture of payoffs and bribery under control

IN 1968, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, then Head of State, declared that the government

had to become a "glass house" in order to rid the Kingdom of official corruption.

Taking the concept of bureaucratic transparency to its extreme, Sihanouk decreed

that the doors and windows of all government offices had to be kept open during office

hours in order to reduce opportunities for conspiracy and corruption.

The effects of the "glass house" rule, recalls Khmer Institute of Democracy

(KID) Executive Director Dr Lao Mong Hay, were less than spectacular. "Some

people [in government] had a good laugh at that," said Mong Hay, who served

in the Kingdom's Ministry of Finance in the 1960s.

More than 30 years later, Cambodia is still wrestling with the problem of widespread

government corruption. And as it was in 1968, solutions are neither quick nor easy.

Pok Than, who as Executive Director of the Center for Social Development (CSD) in

the mid-90s helped initiate a campaign for anti-corruption legislation, says remedies

for the Kingdom's endemic corruption remain frustratingly elusive.

"I was much more idealistic in the beginning, but lately I've realized the issue

[of official corruption] is far too broad and complex," the current Secretary

of State for Education, Youth and Sports admitted wearily. "I'm becoming a bit


Than is far from alone in feeling pessimistic about any fast-track cures for Cambodia's

culture of bribery and payoffs.

Not even Kao Kim Hourn, Executive Director of the Center of International Cooperation

and Peace (CICP) and normally one of the most upbeat analysts of the Kingdom's socio-economic

prospects, can muster much enthusiasm on the subject of government anti-corruption


"We have a long way to go," Kim Hourn conceded. "The government doesn't

have the political will [to address corruption] and there's no legal framework in


Building a legal framework

But help is at hand. After five years of planning, discussion and a lengthy stint

in legislative limbo due to the 1997 coup and last year's national election, a new

National Anti-Corruption Law (NACL) is on the horizon.

Formulated in conjunction with representatives of the CSD, the National Assembly

and the government, the draft law provides for the establishment of both a National

Anti-Corruption Board as well as a Declaration of Assets and Liabilities Act (see


However, SRP MP Son Chhay, who has helped steer the NACL through government committee

rooms since its inception in 1995, says government modifications of the National

Commission Against Corruption Act make the law a potentially greater threat to opposition

legislators than to corrupt officials.

The government's insistence that a specific definition of corruption be eliminated

from the law's final draft is taken by Chhay as a sign of the government's intention

to use the Act for "political purposes".

"I wanted [the definition] to be maintained so we would know what corruption

is, not just [with regard to] government officials but also businessmen," Chhay

said. "Now the law can be interpreted to put in jail anyone [the government]

wants to."

Chhay's fear about how the NACL in its current form could be perverted for political

ends is echoed by Amanda L Morgan in the Asia Foundation's 1998 Working Paper on


Morgan notes a tendency for government anti-corruption campaigns to "degenerate

into witch hunts ... a means through which political opposition can be deposed and

the public gratified."

Concerns about the NACL are not limited to the National Commission Against Corruption.

Pok Than worries that the Declaration of Assets and Liabilities Act will have only

limited utility in detecting seriously corrupt officials.

"In Cambodia, [corrupt] people never put money in the bank [and] they buy assets

but never put them in their own name," he said. "I know some [corrupt]

civil servants with lots of assets but not in their names as a way of avoiding [eventually]

getting caught."

Another expressed concern about the NACL is that its efficacy as part of a legal

system universally recognized as politically partial and hopelessly corrupt is highly


According to Funcinpec Senator Kem Sokha, who as a National Assembly Member helped

formulate the NACL, the draft law will be impotent in the face of a government determined

to protect its own.

Whatever the government doesn't want, doesn't happen," Sokha said, adding that

"... even if [the NACL] is passed ... courts aren't independent so the corruption

law [alone] is not enough [because the accused] can bribe the courts."

More ominously, Sokha cautions that the NACL may actually spur the government to

repressive, anti-democratic measures to protect its high officials from the risk

of investigation for corruption.

"In future [corrupt officials] will be put in danger by this law, like [the

Suharto family] in Indonesia," Sokha explained. "I'm concerned that in

order to avoid this, corrupt leaders may try to [illegally] maintain power. That

would be the wrong lesson of Indonesia."

Even if the NACL is applied fairly on all fronts, Than notes that the NACL will be

no "quick fix". Than points to the lengthy battle fought by Hong Kong authorities

against institutionalized corruption as a good indicator of what lies ahead for Cambodia.

"When Hong Kong's Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) began in

1970, there was initially a very strong reaction from [corrupt elements within] the

police who fought the law," Than explained. "But after 20 years , [the

ICAC] became well known and strong ... it takes time."

Even if the NACL is successfully passed and applied, Dr William Cole, Director of

the Asia Foundation's Law and Governance Theme, warns against unrealistic expectations

that any new anti-corruption legislation might create.

"Nobody's talking about a complete cleaning of [corruption from] the system;

that's impossible," Cole said. "What's feasible is to reduce corruption

so it doesn't hurt development."

Brought to book (not)

Cambodia does not lack laws against corruption. The Compendium of Cambodian Laws

(COCL) lists three statutes enacted during the UNTAC period relating to prosecution

for offenses of official corruption.

Article 37 and Article 38 delineate acts of corruption by government officials

as embezzlement and extortion respectively. Penalties for conviction on either offense

are stiff, including:

  1. Imprisonment of between three and 10 years.
  2. Removal from office.
  3. Two-year prohibition on employment in public administration.
  4. Fines equal to double the sum or value of the government assets extorted or embezzled.

Article 54 of the COCL is concerned with the prosecution of members of the public

who attempt to bribe government officials. Those convicted face prison terms ranging

from one to three years.

No one has ever been charged for corruption offenses in the seven years that these

statutes have been

In search of political will

A key plank of any successful anti-corruption legislation is the sincerity of the

government to subject itself to scrutiny for corrupt activity.

"Laws are necessary but not sufficient," Opposition Leader Sam Rainsy said

in reference to the success of an anti-corruption drive spearheaded by the NACL.

"What's most important is political will from the top."

Unfortunately, compelling evidence of complicity at the highest levels of the Royal

Government with corrupt practices raises serious doubts about the ability or willingness

of Cambodia's leadership to give teeth to any anti-corruption laws.

"The main problem is the leadership factor," Patrick Alley, Director of

the environmental NGO Global Witness, explained in reference to long-time official

collusion in the illegal logging industry.

"Virtually every [illegal logging] deal has had a Prime Minister's signature

on it, as recently as a deal with Laos in mid last year," Alley said. "If

you have the people that lead the country signing illegal logging deals, who can

enforce the law?"

"Hun Sen has the power; he just needs the political will," Chhay said.

"All the people around him are corrupt and he knows that."

The challenges facing Cambodia's leadership in coming to grips with the problem of

official corruption are recognized by Dr Cole.

"Taking action against corruption is difficult for existing leaders ... difficult

and risky," Cole said.

The government's record so far in confronting powerful but corrupt patrons is not

indicative of the kind of strong political will universally agreed to be necessary.

While Prime Minister Hun Sen has got good mileage out of a much-trumpeted crackdown

against illegal logging initiated in March after intense foreign donor pressure,

Global Witness is skeptical about the government's seriousness in maintaining the

crackdown in the long term.


"Since the crackdown, it's been amazing Hun Sen has been able to control [military

officials involved in illegal logging] at all," Alley remarked. "I reckon

[Hun Sen] said, 'The donors are looking: let's calm down for a while'... the mood

of the military across the country is that the crackdown is just temporary."

In spite of such gloomy projections, Cole emphasized that the present Cambodian administration

enjoys a rare window of opportunity to address the issue of corruption.

"The opportunity to make significant advances [against] corruption doesn't come

very often in any country," Cole explained. "The fact that Cambodia is

now at peace and the political situation is now stable may make this a historic opportunity

to establish greater transparency and accountability."

'According to the draft Anti-Corruption Law, the

Anti-Corruption Board will include representatives of the government. But they are

all corrupt people already; how can they eliminate corruption themselves?' - Heav

Veasna, Executive Director of the Center for Social Development

The near-Byzantine intrigues of factional alliances and tenuous power-sharing that

characterize the Cambodian system of government make decisive official action against

corruption tantamount to an attack on longtime political supporters.

Restructuring the system

Even if Cambodia is blessed with both effective anti-corruption laws and the political

will to make them stick, unaddressed structural and administrative flaws are guarantors

of continued official corruption.

"Ultimately, anti-corruption efforts should focus on reforming public policies

and institutions, with explicit high-level leadership and commitment," notes

the World Bank's 1998 Report on Corruption.

According to the Cambodian Development Research Institute's Research Coordinator,

Martin Godfrey, the Cambodian government is already initiating important structural

changes to help expose and reduce official corruption.

In particular, Godfrey notes the establishment of village development committees

at the commune level that provide citizens a chance to voice concerns about the impact

of corruption at the grassroots level.

"[Village development committees] are primarily concerned with decisions about

how to spend aid money," Godfrey said. " But they are also developing toward

detecting cases of corruption and leading protests about them."

Kim Hourn at CICP perceives recent moves to "streamline" the government

bureaucracy in recent months as proof of a government commitment to eradicate the

structural opportunities used by corrupt officials to drain the public purse.

Demobilization, the government campaign against "ghost soldiers" and the

illegal logging crackdown are all indicative of what Kim Hourn describes as "a

move toward government transparency".

In terms of preventing corruption, a reform of the current government pay structure

is seen as essential in removing the necessity of "survival corruption"

by lower-ranking civil servants.

The salaries of many civil servants, police and military remain frozen at approximately

US$20 a month, ßshockingly out of sync with contemporary cost-of-living realities.

"I strongly believe that until the government pays good salaries to civil servants,

police and military, it will be almost impossible to end the problem [of corruption],"

said Than. "Most [government employees] cheat to support their families."

Lack of progress in resolving the long-simmering problem of impossibly low government

salaries is blamed by the KID's Mong Hay on government inertia rather than the Kingdom's

perpetual cash crisis.

"The government says it can't afford [higher government salaries]," Mong

Hay said, "but the salary issue is more an issue of bold decisions and planning,

with pay rises and retrenching over several years."

Senator Kem Sokha, however, warns that salary hikes for government employees must

not come to be seen as a panacea for government corruption.

"Lower officials are corrupt to survive, while higher officials need money for

power," Sokha observed. "If [the government] increases salaries, those

lower officials will also want [more] money for power because in Cambodia power is

impossible without money."

Moral retooling

After all the anti-corruption legislation, structural reforms and salary hikes have

been put into place, will the problem of Cambodian corruption just fade away?

Don't count on it, says Kim Hourn, who advocates a holistic approach against corruption

that takes into consideration the "mentality" Cambodians have developed

toward bribery and payoffs.

"An anti-corruption law is important," Kim Hourn stressed, "but its

more important we change our mentality, our way of interacting on a daily basis."

To that end, Kim Hourn recommends public education programs to inculcate the public

with tendencies to "look at the collective good, to see what belongs to society".

Suggestions of anti-corruption public education are familiar to Pok Than, who lobbied

unsuccessfully in the mid-90s for funding to develop anti-corruption public education


"I said we [could] educate people, influence public opinion and turn public

opinion to put pressure on the government [to fight corruption]," Than recalled.

Than now says that the extent to which corruption has permeated Cambodian society

makes him seriously question whether anti-corruption education would have any substantive


"I don't know how to mobilize against corruption now," Than admitted. "In

other [countries] the young want a 'clean' society to replace the old, but here,

corruption starts in school ... kids grow up thinking [corruption] is normal."

Rather than concentrating on the grassroots level of society, KID's Mong Hay says

that a culture-wide anti-corruption ethos must be first embodied by Cambodian leaders

in order to influence wider society.

"When the brains [of society] are rotten, what happens to the body?" he


Mong Hay recommends that contemporary Cambodian political leaders look to the example

of Jayavarman VII, who ruled Angkorian civilization at its cultural and political


"Jayavarman VII once said, 'The suffering of the people is the suffering of

the rulers'," Mong Hay said. "That [motto] should be included in the training

curriculum of civil servants and soldiers ... [because] corruption is also a suffering."

SRP MP Son Chhay agrees with Mong Hay that concrete progress against corruption depends

on Cambodia's present leadership, but evokes reasons of personal "face"

rather than the influence of long-dead Angkorian emperors.

"Hun Sen will support [anti-corruption measures] not just to ensure his government's

survival, but to give himself more dignity," Chhay explained. "Who on earth

wants to be the Prime Minister of a country rated as the most corrupt in the world?"

In the works?

A draft National Anti-Corruption Law formulated over the past five years is expected

to be passed into law by 2001. The law has two main components:

  1. The National Commission Against Corruption Act: an investigative body designed

    to "identify corrupt acts, patterns or practices at all levels ... and to take

    appropriate action."

  2. The Declaration of Assets and Liabilities Act.

A regulation requiring government officials to publicly declared their personal

assets in order to ascertain which officials may possess personal assets "beyond

their means" and thus warranting investigation for corruption.

Penalties for Conviction Under Either Act:

  1. Immediate dismissal "no matter what the position or rank"
  2. A lifetime ban on employment in public administration
  3. A lifetime ban on any business relationship with the government or any of its


  4. Civil action to recover "any benefits illegally obtained"

The government is reportedly considering removing the "penalties" section

of the draft law.


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