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Exploring Cambodia's evolution

Exploring Cambodia's evolution


'In today's Cambodia, the God of

Impunity reigns side by side

with the King of

Monthly Bulletin of

King Norodom Sihanouk, March 1999

In the first of a three part series on corruption in the Kingdom,
Phelim Kyne examines the nature of Cambodia's corruption and how

it has evolved over the past half century

Visitors to Cambodia need

not wait long after arrival for hints of the Kingdom's pervasive


From the visa officers at Pochentong Airport who provide

"express service" to passports with five bucks folded inside to the multiple

informal "tolls" exacted from taxi drivers at roadside military checkpoints,

scams to produce financial grease for the wheels of the Cambodian civil service

and the palms of its employees are as innovative as they are


In contemporary Cambodian society, paying kickbacks to

officials of all stripes isn't just one way of negotiating the various levels of

the Kingdom's underpaid bureaucracy, it's become the only way.

From the

plush suites to side streets, virtually everyone in Cambodia is on the take.

Asking for or paying bribes is now a Cambodian norm rather than an


While a small, upper level government elite rakes in millions

of dollars at a penstroke to facilitate everything from illegal logging to

importation of poisonous wastes, for the majority of Cambodians at street level,

finessing the shorthand of corruption has become an essential survival


In today's Kingdom, honesty has become a liability, a sure route

to impoverishment; those who aspire to higher positions in life must be prepared

to pay to get there. Once acquired, however, those higher positions pay for

themselves by becoming a lucrative conduit for bribes from lower


In a paper presented at an international anti-corruption

conference held in Bangkok in April, Cambodia's Centre for Social Development

described corruption in the Kingdom as "...widespread throughout the government

bureaucracy, including teachers who demand payments from students, health care

workers who won't treat people unless bribes are paid, police who put the

squeeze on motorists and businesses, and judges who demand payoffs in return for

favorable rulings in court."

CSD Director Heav Veasna emphasizes the

unique virulence of Cambodia's corruption problems.

"Corruption is a

worldwide phenomenon," acknowledged Veasna, "but in Cambodia corruption is

institutionalized from bottom to top, top to bottom."

The good news,

according to Martin Godfrey, Research Coordinator of the Cambodian Development

Research Institute, is that Cambodian corruption has yet to rank with that of

more infamous kleptocracies such as Nigeria and Indonesia.

"There's been

no systematic comparison of corruption in Cambodia [with that in other

countries]," Godfrey admitted, "but there are a lot of places that make Cambodia

look good [in terms of corruption]."

Godfrey's appraisal of the

relatively benign nature of Cambodian corruption provides cold comfort for Sam

Rainsy Party MP and veteran anti-corruption campaigner Son Chhay.


my point of view, Cambodia's [corruption] is the worst in Asia," Chhay says. "In

general, at least 70 percent of [Cambodia's] national revenue is lost to


Chhay is not alone in his concern about the gravity of

Cambodia's corruption woes.

In 1997 the International Monetary Fund

canceled US$60 million in loans to the Kingdom in a response to widespread

official collusion in illegal logging. The IMF, miffed at seeing annual losses

of over $100 million in timber revenues to the government till, packed up its

office and left town.

More dramatically, the connivance of corrupt

Customs and Camcontrol officials resulted in last December's dumping of 3000

tons of Taiwanese toxic waste in the coastal city of Sihanoukville, which

directly or indirectly led to the deaths of at least seven people.


months later, Prime Minister Hun Sen was served notice at the Tokyo meeting of

Cambodia's international donors that corruption concerns were now part of the

calculus by which future foreign aid would be weighed, particularly where it

related to the destruction of the Kingdom's natural resources.

The Roots of the Rot

Corruption is far

from a new phenomenon in Cambodian society. As historian David Chandler notes in

The Tragedy of Cambodian History, in the post-independence period of the 1950s

and 1960s, "...endemic unpunished corruption affected nearly all official


Like their contemporary counterparts, civil servants of that

period linked public services to bribes, cynically referred to as "bon jour".

"For any kind of government service, money changed hands," Chandler notes.

"People's contacts with the government were almost always occasions for bon


Khmer Institute of Democracy executive director Lao Mong Hay, who

himself worked for the Ministry of Finance in the 1960s, describes the "bon jour

system" as "part of the culture of the1950s and 1960s".

"When government

officials delivered services, people paid [bon jour] because they were

grateful," Mong Hay explained. "People didn't understand in those days the idea

of human rights, that those services were rights, not favors that had to be paid


Although even in the 1960s an estimated 30% of revenue destined for

government coffers "went into the pockets of tax collectors, customs officials,

policemen and other officials," Mong Hay contends that corruption at that time

was far less a burden on society than it has become in the


"There was restraint [applied to official corruption] that no

longer exists," Mong Hay said. "Corruption was still manageable."


"restraint" that served to limit excesses of official corruption in the 1960s

Mong Hay attributes to a reliable government pay structure that reduced the

incentive for serious abuses.

"All government officials [at that time]

were paid basic living wages, with extra paid to teachers and [rural]

agricultural officials," Mong Hay said.

Mong Hay also credits an

independent judiciary inherited from the French that "had checks and balances

and directives that had to be stuck to", coupled with a consensus of "moral and

ethical values toward earning and living" as factors that helped suppress the

kind of rapacious corruption that flourishes today.

The establishment of

Lon Nol's Khmer Republic in 1970 signaled a decisive departure from what Mong

Hay describes as the "live and let live" corruption that defined the


The progressive disintegration of Cambodian civil society wrought

by the escalating Khmer Rouge insurgency, combined with the massive US military

and financial aid supplied to fight it, elevated government corruption to

heights previously unknown.

"In 1973 ... several new provinces were

created in order to create new governorships, themselves paid for by applicants

who, given power over areas they never visited, could siphon off funds intended

for these regions," David Chandler notes in The Tragedy of Cambodian History.

"Governors sold arms and ammo to rebels, and army units, in many cases manned by

12-year old boys, were at half strength but paid in full."


argues that the vast scale of corruption during the Lon Nol regime and its

deleterious effects on the Cambodian public played no small part in the eventual

triumph of the Khmer Rouge in April 1975.

"The degradation of Cambodia

[by corruption] made it easier for the Communists to gain recruits and easier

for those who watched the country coming apart to hope and even insist that the

[Khmer Rouge] rather than the 'old society' offered a viable future to the

Cambodian people."



In the totalitarian communist state of Pol Pot's

Democratic Kampuchea and the early days of the People's Republic of Kampuchea

regime that followed it in 1979, government corruption was effectively


A combination of strict government centralization of the

economy and a tight state security apparatus made opportunities for government

corruption as rare as they were dangerous.

In 1989, however, hints of an

end to the country's command economy raised by the first Paris Peace Conference

sparked a renewal in large-scale government corruption reminiscent of that which

occurred in the Lon Nol era.

"Cambodia reached this level of corruption

through a unique association between [the then-governing] communists and the

Mafia," explains former Cambodian Finance Minister Sam Rainsy.


to Rainsy, elements "with links on the fringes of legality" were recruited to

lend their free market "economic expertise" to government efforts to sell off

state assets.

Rainsy names Teng Bun Ma as "one of a number of businessmen

and families" who prospered from sales of state assets of dubious


"Under the label 'privatization', the government started

selling state assets with no transparency," Rainsy says.

"This created a

symbiotic relationship between the communists who held political power and the

Mafia who held the economic power."

The aftermath of the UNTAC-sponsored

election of 1993 caused a steep acceleration in government corruption encouraged

by the uneasy power-sharing agreement between the CPP and


"Some members of the [1993] government...wanted money to live

in 'high class style'," says Veasna.

"The sale of state assets

accelerated and illegal logging increased as [logging] contracts were awarded to

big companies so officials could get 'commissions'."

"Second Culture"

The widespread, brazen

government corruption that has characterized the Kingdom's public life over the

past decade is blamed for having a corrosive effect on traditional Khmer value

systems, already pummeled beyond recognition by the Khmer


"Corruption has become a 'second culture' for Cambodians," says

Kao Kim Hourn, Executive Director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and

Peace. "Nowadays it doesn't matter how you get money; if you have money you're


Kim Hourn's assessment of the impact of corruption on the

nation's morals is reflected in the first scientific survey of the Cambodian

public's attitudes toward corruption conducted by the Center for Social

Development in 1998.

The survey found corruption "deeply ingrained" in

Cambodian society, with 84% of those surveyed regarding corruption as a "normal"

way of doing business.

A full 59% of those surveyed found vote buying

acceptable and stated the belief that "given the opportunity, most people would

practice corruption".

"Cambodians think corruption is a normal way of

life," says Veasna.

Cambodians don't recognize [the concept] of private

property - the idea that this table is mine- anymore," adds Mong Hay. "They feel

no sin about committing corruption and theft."

The end result of

Cambodian corruption, warns SRP MP Son Chhay, is a rapid "social disintegration"

that threatens the country's very existence.

"I never saw mothers take

daughters to sell [their] virginity, or saw people kill each other for a

bicycle, but that's become normal now," he says.

"Corruption has sucked

the country dry ... this is not the Cambodia I used to know."


Naming the beast, defining the crime

A 1995 Draft Law on the creation of a National Anti-Corruption Law for the

Kingdom defined corruption as:

a) An act by a government official

or employee of any rank in which such person uses his position to gain some

benefit for himself, another person or a legal entity through the

  1. taking of state property
  2. taking of the property of another
  3. acceptance of a bribe, inducement or gift of any kind at any time in

    exchange for conferring some benefit on another person

b) An act by a private individual who offers a bribe, inducement or

gift of any kind.

This explicit definition of corruption was later

dropped for no reason from a revised version of the draft law. The draft law

itseelf has been stalled at committtee level for five years.


Predators and survivors: the shades of Cambodian


Those concerned with the detection and measurement of Cambodian corruption

carefully delineate between high and low level government corruption.


make a distinction between predatory corruption and survival corruption,"

explains former Minister of Finance Sam Rainsy.

According to Rainsy, the

huge profits generated by high level government corruption and its resultant

impact on society make it quantitatively and ethically different from the

corruption practiced by low level civil servants.

"Predatory corruption

uses 'survival' as an excuse to get millions of dollars from one signature,"

Rainsy explained. "Survival corruption is [illegally deriving] a few dollars

just to survive."

Rainsy in no way overstates the role of corruption by

low level civil servants as an essential method to supplement hopelessly low


According to the Center for Social Development. "...the

overriding problem [fostering corruption] is that while the cost of living is

over US$300 per month, the average [government] wage is less than US$20."

Based on the reality of the Cambodian civil service pay structure,

Martin Godfrey of CDRI suggests that it is inappropriate to tar struggling

low-level civil servants as corrupt. "It's a misnomer to call it 'corruption',"

Godfrey explained. "They're paid so little that if they don't find another way

to make money, they don't survive."

While acknowledging the role of low

salaries in the endemic corruption in the country's civil service, veteran

anti-corruption campaigner and Secretary of State for the Ministry of Education,

Youth and Sports, Pok Than, warns that underestimating the corrosive effect of

"survival corruption" is as dangerous as overlooking the excesses of "predatory


"In my research, petty corruption, even if it doesn't take a

lot of money, added together has a big impact on the whole society," Than said.

He points out that even relatively innocuous roadside shakedowns of motorists by

policemen have far-reaching effects on the broader society.

"The reason

that fruit and vegetables from Battambang are so expensive [in Phnom Penh] is

that the delivery trucks have to pay bribes all the way down. Even 'small'

corruption attacks all people's lives in society."


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