In the hall of a riverside hotel in Phnom Penh recently, a young man passionately shared details about a photo portraying corruption’s impact. Many other young individuals joined, showcasing their artistic skills at an exhibition to spotlight corruption in Cambodian society.

The December 8 exhibit, Corruption and its Impact, was part of a competition hosted by Transparency International (TI) Cambodia to mark International Anti-Corruption Day, December 9. 

Young artists, who captured the theme through photos and paintings, set up displays aiming to pique interest among visitors from civil society organisations, researchers and state institutions, fostering a collective effort against corruption.

Veng Chivai, a recent graduate of the Royal University of Fine Arts (RUFA), expressed her message through gestures and gentle words. Her painting, depicting a robust tree being consumed by white worms, symbolises corruption’s corrosive effect. 

She explained that indifference, lack of involvement, silence or neglect to act allows corruption to proliferate, eventually eroding society as a whole.

“I joined the competition to express my commitment to combating corruption. As a young person, alongside my studies, I aim to contribute positively to society. This involves promoting social advancement and avoiding exploitation and oppression with the knowledge I’ve gained, steering clear of bribery and setting a good example for others,” said Chivai.

Close by, Hy Channy, a third-year university student from Phnom Penh, showcased her hand-painted artwork. 

She said she appreciates the government’s initiatives against corruption, but suggested that tackling persistent corruption involves addressing a few high-level individuals, wealthy figures and powerful people. Channy believes that this could be an effective strategy to eliminate corruption.

“If corruption involves high-ranking individuals, we need to acknowledge the source, because if those at the top continue to be involved, it sets a tone for ordinary people to follow suit,” she said.

Mindsets and social justice

Chhay Pich Jessica, a Grade 12 student at Prek Leap High School’s New Generation School – one of the model schools initiated by the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport – in the capital’s Chroy Changvar district, presented a painting portraying a hand holding a scale. One pan carried a heart, while the other held money. She said her painting speaks about a culture where money often takes precedence over moral values and honesty.

“I believe the solution to this problem is linked to the mindsets of people. If we steer away from putting money first and instead highlight ideas, thoughtful considerations and offer reasonable value to capable individuals in any context and anywhere, it will contribute to establishing social justice,” she said.

Phuong Khemara, a young photographer, portrayed the clandestine act of taking bribes in the dark. His photo captures only the hands – one passing a bag of money to the other.

In describing the photo, he mentioned the significance of how certain individuals link money with power, pushing them into positions and reaping benefits. Yet, this approach undermines genuinely capable individuals and contributes to social injustice.

Khemara stressed that preventing such activities in public institutions requires recruiting genuinely competent people through practical tests, thorough background checks and avoiding awarding positions obtained through bribery.

He also said that to root out corruption from society, everyone must detest it and be wholeheartedly committed to rejecting bribery in any form.

“Putting an end to corruption starts with each and every one of us; we shouldn’t wait for the government’s efforts. Even if the government sets a goal, if people continue to engage in corruption, it will persist,” Khemara said.

ACU officials sharing anti-corruption messages to market vendors earlier this month. ACU

Culture of trust

Pok Marina, chair of TI Cambodia board of directors, noted that the images presented in the competition by these young individuals were captivating, thanks to the artistic quality and the connection between the younger generation and society regarding corruption.

Corruption, she said, is a chronic disease with profound effects on human priorities, the economy, the environment and politics, adding that it hinders access to public resources and obstructs national development.

“The vital first step we need to take is finding ways to reduce corruption. It’s essential to foster a culture of trust between the people and the government, creating a fair and equitable society where everyone benefits equally from the country’s development,” she said.

On Anti-Corruption Day, Prime Minister Hun Manet conveyed in a letter that Cambodia doesn’t solely rely on the Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU) to combat graft. Over the last six mandates, the government, along with national and sub-national institutions, the private sector, civil society, journalists and the people, has persistently collaborated in this crucial effort.

Former Prime Minister Hun Sen introduced a range of extensive reforms that led to significant economic growth.

The guiding motto, easy to remember, understand and implement is summed up in the words of the former premier: “Look in the mirror, shower, wash, get treatment and undergo surgery”.

“I’ll keep championing this simple motto, and certainly, if we regularly look in the mirror, shower, wash, get treatment and undergo surgery, our society will be clean in social and economic development,” Hun Sen said.

Educational initiative

Om Yentieng, head of the ACU, addressed Anti-Corruption Day celebration on December 9 at Koh Pich Convention and Exhibition Centre in Phnom Penh. He noted that this year, the unit spearheaded an educational initiative in schools, both in the capitals and the provinces, to raise awareness about corruption. The activities included concerts, circus performances, quizzes for prizes and the placement of banners in local markets, popular destinations and across major thoroughfares.

Men Sam An, a member of the Supreme Privy Council to the King and vice-chair of the National Anti-Corruption Council, said graft remains a pressing issue requiring active participation of everyone with a sense of responsibility. While some actions may seem simple, they are evolving into focal points that need transformation into new practices, polished by legal documents and preventive measures.

She added that the seventh legislature of the National Assembly has advocated for reforms in pursuit of good governance. This involves a specific focus on strengthening the fight against corruption through a strong will and high commitment, highlighting improved implementation of several crucial strategies.

“The three core measures involve education, prevention and enforcing anti-corruption laws to enhance law enforcement effectiveness, boost public administration and the private sector, improve governance and internal oversight, as well as encourage collaboration with the international community in the fight against corruption and money laundering,” she said.

Sam An also encouraged authorities at all levels to enhance transparency and accountability and stressed the importance of establishing and nurturing modern, efficient public service management mechanisms. This would help prevent corruption, violations of professional ethics and abuses of power in carrying out roles and responsibilities, she added.