Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Graft: pervasive, ever-present, problematic

Graft: pervasive, ever-present, problematic

Graft: pervasive, ever-present, problematic

Among the promises to come out of the recent donors' meeting was one by Prime Minister

Hun Sen that the long-delayed anti-corruption law would be passed before the end

of June 2003.

Corruption is no small matter in Cambodia, as donors are well aware, and as figures

quoted later in this article will show. However to date donors have proved unable,

and some would say unwilling, to pressure the government.

But at the June meeting, the World Bank's regional head, Ian Porter, warned that

if progress was not made, Cambodia would get less money at the next round.

That is the kind of talk anti-corruption activists want to hear, as those who hold

power are more likely to listen to the people with the purse strings. At the local

level, many Khmers have been at the forefront of combating corruption since 1995,

when representatives of Funcinpec, the Sam Rainsy Party and civil society began meeting

on the issue.

Their efforts are not without risks: Nhem Vanthorn, the executive director of the

Khmer Human Rights and Anti-Corruption Organization (KHRACO), and Heav Veasna, managing

director of the Center for Social Development (CSD), have both been threatened in

the past for speaking out.

Gauging the cost of corruption is by its nature difficult. Back in 1995 the Minister

of Finance, Keat Chhon, estimated the state was losing $100 million annually in illegal

logging and illicit exports of rubber and fish.

CSD's Veasna now estimates the cost of corruption is as much as $400 million a year.

He draws a link between political corruption and crimes against humanity, and foresees

disaster unless the situation improves.

And there is little doubt that high-ranking officials are creaming off millions of

dollars. KHRACO's Vanthorn says the investigation bureau of Singapore's anti-corruption

board has identified 26 senior Cambodian government officials, each of whom has more

than $20 million tucked away there in bank accounts. The Singapore Embassy said it

was not aware of the report.

If true, it means at least $520 million of money is sitting in Singaporean bank accounts.

Whether that money has been gained legally or otherwise remains to be seen, but it

is highly unlikely that Singapore is the only country where money is deposited by

Cambodia's elite.

To get an idea of the scale of the sum relative to the country, half a billion dollars

is more than Cambodia received in foreign direct investment in the three years between

1997-99.

"They have asked me not to identify these people by name," says Vanthorn,

"but once the country has an anti-corruption law, they will pass on all the

detailed information."

Perhaps so, but talk of an all-encompassing law has been on the cards for years.

Veasna says there are currently 11 draft laws, which have emanated from diverse sources,

but each proposal that has come before the National Assembly has hit the wall. The

Cambodian People's Party and the royalist Funcinpec hold the reins of power, and

neither is immune from accusations of corruption.

Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodian Defenders' Project (CDP), says

the country's courts haven't heard a single corruption case since UNTAC drew up its

laws ten years ago. The lack of transparency in the workings of government means

finding proof is virtually impossible.

"If high-ranking officials are still allowed to work in secret, there will be

no transparency and we will be unable to eliminate corruption," he says.

Vanthorn says that his organization has finished work on a draft law, helped by lawmakers

and CSD. It must first go to the Council of Ministers (CoM) before proceeding to

the National Assembly.

Whether their law will get that far is debatable, although the government claims

it is making a concerted effort. Sean Visoth, a permanent member of the CoM's anti-corruption

unit, says there are numerous drafts under consideration by different ministries

and the government's attorney. After that scrutiny, the CoM will debate them.

Activists say that is part of the problem: many officials who have gained from graft

in the past are not keen to disclose what they are worth, and will approve at best

a watered-down version of what is required.

And while both Veasna and Vanthorn welcome the Prime Minister's commitment to finalizing

the law within a year, they say civil society is not convinced such a sensitive piece

of legislation will pass the National Assembly so close to the July 2003 general

election.

The country's slide into corruption, says Veasna, began after 1993 when Cambodia

began its transition from a centralized economy to one based on the free market.

That brought with it previously unheard of opportunities for graft, which many took

advantage of.

"Requiring government officials to declare their assets and liabilities is extremely

important," says Veasna of one of the draft's main provisions, "because

it will provide a basis for investigation [into the source of that wealth]. That

is the only way we can do this, and it will provide a good mechanism to combat corrupt

officials."

Ultimately all the good work of NGOs and their partners will come down to the willingness

of a majority of National Assembly's 122 members to be transparent. And those in

the fight expect that the political nature of the problem will make approval difficult.

One MP who has long been an outspoken critic of corruption is the SRP's Son Chhay.

He says corruption has become entrenched as a way of maintaining political power,

and he has little confidence that a law with sufficient teeth will go through.

The government, he adds, has no intention of establishing an effective anti-corruption

law, as it would affect too many of their own.

"And if there eventually is a law, the government won't make it retrospective,"

says Chhay, "because almost all the politicians will end up in jail."

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