Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Who guards the guardians?Corruption and nepotism plague Cambodia's politicized police force

Who guards the guardians?Corruption and nepotism plague Cambodia's politicized police force

Who guards the guardians?Corruption and nepotism plague Cambodia's politicized police force

With an international manhunt tracking down the where abouts of disgraced Phnom Penh

police chief Heng Pov, civil society commentators are saying his dramatic fall from

grace sheds light on the workings of Cambodia's law enforcement agencies.

"Heng Pov is not the only one," said one leading figure in Cambodian civil

society who asked to remain anonymous. "He is just one senior policeman. How

many others are of the same level or higher? How many others are just like him?"

There are around 67,000 civil police in Cambodia, and another 10,000 in the Military

Police and Gendarmerie, double the number before 1993, said an Asian Human Rights

Commission report by Muzamil Jaleel.

"The basic reason for the high recruitment numbers is the politicization of

the police force," Jaleel said. "Untrained and professional policemen dominate

both the civilian and military police. Officers and lower-rank personnel all have

more loyalties to the political party they are affiliated to than to the government

or country."

Cambodia's recent history has caused this politicization of various government departments,

including the police and armed forces, Jaleel said.

"The Pol Pot regime destroyed most of the state and society institutions and

replaced them with party structures in order to enforce order and obedience,"

he said. "The Vietnamese-sponsored communist regime from 1979 onwards continued

the model of an all-controlling state apparatus, with no separation between state

and party."

Despite the arrival of UNTAC in 1992, the situation has not changed in the 14 years

since and local rights groups say the politicization has severely damaged the functioning

of state institutions.

"When you politicize national institutions it cannot work; there should be training

and tests to create the potential of the talented rising through the ranks,"

said Kek Galabru, president of human rights NGO Licadho. "People should work

as a civil servant for the nation, not for a party."

Politicization limits the opportunities to progress through the ranks according to

merit, which is a frustration for many civil servants.

"I have worked for the police since 1986," said one Toul Kork policeman

who declined to be named. "I am still in the same position because I don't have

money or powerful patrons."

There is no possibility of climbing through the ranks on the basis of personal ability,

observers say.

"The fact that most of the posts in the police force are being sold has become

gospel truth," Jaleel said. "The other pervasive phenomenon is the tremendous


The deep-rooted and widespread politicization of Cambodia's national institutions

has led some to question whether the government's recent spate of high-profile arrests

and prosecutions of police officials for corruption genuinely indicate a commitment

to eradicating corruption at all levels of Cambodia's law enforcement agencies.

"Political will could depoliticize these institutions [and] if we could do this

then the law would be better enforced and implemented," Galabru said. "But

we must wait and see how many more [police] they will go for now."

Some civil society leaders have suggested that high-profile prosecutions, such as

that of Pov, are in reality the result of personal feuding within the politicized

police force.

"With Heng Pov the problems have been going on for many years - why do they

decide to punish him now?" said Kem Sokha, president of the Cambodian Center

for Human Rights. "I think other high-ranking officials could be behaving as

Heng Pov does but as they don't have a conflict with others within government they

are not punished."

But Sokha says that though it may remain a politicized institution, the last decade

has seen considerable improvements in the actual functioning of the Cambodian police


"If we compare the situation now to how it was immediately after UNTAC, the

police are better now," he said. "Before, in prisons, in jails, the conditions

were very bad; incidents of torture were very high and the police didn't have much

idea regarding human rights."

Police training - provided by both UNTAC and a variety of foreign donors - has helped

improve the quality of the police force. But public confidence in the service is

still not strong as people know it takes power or influence to get things done, Sokha


"There is not much public confidence in the police or the government; if people

have problems they go to NGOs," he said. "Not all the police are bad but

they all have to follow instructions from on high. If they have orders to investigate

a particular crime they do, if they don't have orders, they won't."

That there is a problem with the service provided by the police force is widely acknowledged

but difficult to prove, Galabru said.

"In theory the police protect the citizens; but we hear reports that when citizens

ask for police protection they have to pay for the service," she said. "We

have reports of arrests being followed by beatings in an attempt to extract confessions

or money. We have reports that if you pay you can escape - and if this is not the

case then why in prison are the majority of people poor? Where are the rich?"

Awareness that money or political connections are key factors determining whether

justice will be done may lead to public scepticism about the purported aims of the

recent spate of arrests, Galabru said.

"I don't think the people believe the government has the will to prosecute more

officials," she said. "The Cambodian people are not stupid, they don't

believe everything. They will know that this is something internal - unless the government

really proves them wrong."

That money and influence are important in determining whether the police will work

for or against you is apparent from the inconsistencies in the police force's ability

to solve crimes, Sokha said. For example, police are often unable to capture the

murderers of anti-government activists or journalists, yet are remarkably efficient

at solving crimes committed against the government.

"What is most important is the commitment of the government," he said.

"Our police have the capacity to solve crimes but it requires money or political

will to get things done."

But this need to pay for the service of police, or the ability to pay one's way out

of police custody, are key factors which lesson public confidence in law enforcement

agencies, said Steve Moore, Community Safety Officer at the Cambodian Criminal Justice

Assistance Project (CCJAP).

"People don't like the 'fee for service' approach, but despite this there are

many people who think the police are doing a good job," he said. "Access

to justice is still problematic - and obviously the lower down the food chain you

are, the harder it is."

Sokha said financial incentives are clearly the most effective way of obtaining police


"If a thief steals two cows from the people, and the people go to the police

and say 'If you can get our cows back we will give one cow to you' then it will be

easy to find those cows," he said.

But this pervasive corruption at lower levels is caused by corruption among the upper

echelons of the police force, Sokha said.

"Police see their leaders' behavior," he said. "They know generals

have good villas, many wives, nice cars, and everyone wants to be the same. It is

the implicit instructions they receive."

The life of an average policeman is entirely dominated by the need to please those

slightly higher up the chain of command, said the anonymous Toul Kork policeman.

"I was so busy I didn't have any time to spend with my family," he said.

If there was any disturbance my police chief would send me out to work, even at 3am,

and it was risky work too, confronting robbers. But if I didn't do as my police chief

ordered me to I would be punished. Some police chiefs take away positions, fire people,

as punishment but mine wasn't that bad."

This utter dependency on pleasing those further up the hierarchy is again rooted

in the politicization of the police force. From 1975 onwards, party functionaries

in Cambodia have had a duel function of working both for the party and for the government


"[Before UNTAC] the control by the party of government functions could be well

understood by the fact that the police chief falls under the direct control of the

party chief in the provinces," Jaleel said. "This practice was carried

on by the CPP."

Party affiliation remains to this day a key factor in determining whether justice

will come your way, said Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Confederation of


"The police should be independent and work for the good of the state as a whole,

not work for some interests," he said. "In Cambodia it is different - the

armed forces serve the powerful, especially the CPP, in fact to tell the truth the

police in Cambodia are not independent."

The widespread corruption in the implementation of laws is apparent - and Cambodian

citizens are not unaware that it is largely power politics or hard cash that determine

whether or not justice will be done, Sokha said.

"If the government wanted to find all those who killed rights activists and

union leaders in Cambodia they could find them," he said. "So why don't

they? Because most of the killings relate to political issues. Now they accuse Heng

Pov of being behind all these assassinations. At the time, people would have accused

Heng Pov but they couldn't because he was powerful. Maybe this is why we cannot find

the killers in these political assassinations - because the killer is in power. I

hope when these killers lose their power we will find them - we can wait for justice."


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