A newly formed NGO is challenging lawmakers and government officials to publish details of their personal assets and income in advance of forthcoming elections, a challenge several NGO heads plan to take up as an example to their public sector counterparts.
Accountability Cambodia, which says it has the backing of 11 other civil society organisations, claims the existing system for recording the wealth and money earned by senior public servants is secretive and fails the electorate.
Currently, details of the assets of lawmakers and senior officials are held in sealed envelopes at the offices of the government’s Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU), and are only opened if the ACU chairman decides to launch an investigation.
“The problem is that the public does not have access to this information, so they cannot make an informed judgment about whether an official’s assets involve a conflict of interest,” said Kuy Mearsamnang, director of Accountability Cambodia.
“For instance, if an official in the Ministry of Agriculture had shares in a rubber plantation company, that could influence decisions he or she made in their public office. So it is vital that information about the assets of senior public officials is freely available.”
Mearsamnang added that the 11 NGO leaders lending their support to the new initiative had provisionally agreed to have details of their own assets and income published online.
“We want to start with the NGOs, as an example of good practice, to encourage all political parties, including the government, to be equally open.”
Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia – who said it was an “honour” to be among the NGO leaders declaring their assets – said public figures had a duty to be above board about their wealth.
“If you are paid by the public, who pay tax, then you should expect to declare all your assets and income,” he said. “It’s a question of trust, which has been broken by Cambodia’s recent history, and this initiative is part of rebuilding that trust.”
Opposition lawmaker Son Chhay said his party had no problem with publishing details of senior CNRP figures’ assets and income, including those of the leader, “now or in the future”. His party would even extend accountability requirements to family members.
“If we are in government, we will enforce the obligation to declare your assets without them being hidden in an envelope,” he said. “Everything should be declared, assets and income, of yourself and your wife and your children. In this country, powerful individuals often funnel money through their wives and children to conceal income.”
Government spokesman Phay Siphan said he was not opposed in principle to what Accountability Cambodia was proposing, but he had concerns about potential risks to individuals whose financial affairs were made public.
“Jealousy is a risk in this,” he said. “Two or three years ago, a public servant was exposed by the media for being very wealthy, and about three weeks later the minister concerned had his residence robbed while his wife was at home.”
Decisions about the level of transparency would depend on the amount of security the state could provide to the people whose details were published, Siphan added.
“The government is not going to make a law against its own people,” he said. “One that could, for instance, damage their privacy.”
Preap Kol, executive director of Transparency International Cambodia, welcomed Accountability Cambodia’s initiative.
“I think it is important to keep pushing for the amendment of the current Anti-Corruption Law to require asset declaration be made public rather than keeping it secret,” he said.