The South Korean government is launching a bipartisan probe this week into the capsizing of a ferry last month that led to the deaths of nearly 300 people, many of them schoolchildren.
The move comes after the government arrested and charged the CEO of the company that owned the doomed Sewol ferry – which sank on April 16 – after a vice principal of the school that many of the drowned children attended hanged himself, and after acts of public contrition at the highest levels of government.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye apologised, and her prime minister publicly fell on his sword, resigning his office and its largely ceremonial role.
For many who watched the events in South Korea unfold from the sidelines in Cambodia, that aggressive reaction could not feel more foreign and otherworldly.
As the opposition, rights groups and ordinary observers are quick to point out, and the ruling party is not quick to dispute, the South Korean government’s actions in the wake of the ferry accident highlights an utter lack of high-level accountability in present-day Cambodia.
Here, many say, heads will not roll, few are thrown under the bus, and it’s difficult to remember the last time, if ever, someone fell on a sword.
“So the idea of a Cambodian leader resigning to show responsibility is a concept that is so foreign that it could have come from Mars as far as ordinary Cambodians are concerned. They have never seen it and probably would be profoundly shocked if it ever happened,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division, adding that there is a history in South Korea and Japan of leaders taking the fall for negligence or wrongdoing.
“I cannot remember any Cambodian official ever resigning to take responsibility, or any taking other action voluntarily to show they were responsible,” he added.
The memories are equally lacking across party lines. Members of both were hard-pressed to think of a single instance in which it has happened.
“I don’t have any example on this topic at all,” Minister of Commerce Sun Chanthol, a ruling Cambodian People’s Party appointee, said, without offering a reason as to why it hasn’t happened.
Opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party leader Sam Rainsy said such decisions are impossible under a one-party system with no independent institutions and no checks and balances.
Asked if he could come up with an instance of someone being hauled in to answer for larger wrongdoing, he said: “Never.”
“Maybe occasionally a small fish is forced to play the role of a scapegoat. But never has a big fish even been identified to help render any justice to any people.”
Cambodia historian David Chandler said the Sewol disaster “sort of resembles” the Koh Pich accident in 2010, when more than 350 people died during a panicked stampede on a desperately overcrowded bridge – since torn down – in Phnom Penh.
While Prime Minister Hun Sen did say at the time that Koh Pich was the worst calamity to befall Cambodia since the rise of the Khmer Rouge, no one took responsibility, no one was arrested and no legislation was passed to prevent similar tragedies in the future.
The closest Hun Sen has ever come to personally bearing the brunt for a national calamity is his years-old promise to chop off his own head if illegal logging in Cambodia’s forests continued. The threat, hyperbolic as it was, has not curtailed rampant logging.
In cases involving state-sanctioned violence and corruption, the reaction from those in charge is also nonexistent.
Earlier this year, when military police killed at least four garment workers outside an industrial park in Phnom Penh, no one in the armed forces stepped forward to shoulder responsibility.
After former Svay Rieng Provincial Governor Chhouk Bandith shot three garment workers at a protest in Bavet town in February 2012, he was eventually convicted in absentia. Instead of facing the music and turning himself in, he left the show and the authorities have yet to arrest him.
Panhavuth Long, a program officer with the Cambodian Justice Initiative, said South Korea’s democracy is strong, and, therefore, so is its rule of law.
Long said the core values in Cambodia are, in order: politics, economics, and then, in last place, the “lives of the people”, when it should be the other way around.
Some argue, however, that Cambodia’s turbulent history has created a culture where accountability is unable to thrive. South Korea’s government has peacefully changed hands before, but Cambodia is still driven by the same ruling party faithful who were installed in the post-Khmer Rouge government backed by the Vietnamese.
“Usually, when a country is ruled by leaders from the generation that has emerged from conflict and without [a] proper legal and accountability system in place from the start, the leaders have made uncountable mistakes over the period of administration until they get used to being free of accountability or punishment for making mistakes,” said Preap Kol, head of Transparency International
“Deep inside them, there is an absence of a sense of responsibility and a feeling of guilt.”
In South Korea, Kol continued, it is different. Leaders there are much more sensitive to social pressure and their own personal “sense of guilt”.
Though it may prove difficult to single out a senior official who quit out of a sense of shame or for the greater good, it is easy to find Cambodians who wouldn’t mind seeing it happen.
Waiting for customers on Sothearos Boulevard yesterday, Sok Vannarith, a 36-year-old motorbike taxi driver, said he viewed the resignation of the South Korean prime minister as “symbolic of high responsibility for his citizens . . . [which] in Cambodia, I have never seen since I was born”.
Vannarith also made a comparison to the Koh Pich catastrophe, and said a similar gesture by the government could have helped assuage the pain that followed.
“We wanted our leaders to take high responsibility for the disaster in Koh Pich, for the City Hall governor or owner of Koh Pich to take high responsibility, not just offer compensation.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY VONG SOKHENG AND AFP