Cambodia on Long Road to Freedom from Corruption

More than ten months since the Anti-Corruption Unit was formally inaugurated, the institution is facing significant challenges while corruption remains a ‘fundamental concern’ in Cambodia, found the Asian Development Bank in an assessment to be released in coming weeks.

“[T]he private sector continues to rank ‘corruption’ as the principal concern in Cambodia’s business environment,” said an online summary of the Country Governance Risk Assessment Report and Risk Management Plan.

The 2010 anti-corruption law and establishment of the unit have not yet achieved tangible results in combating the problem, it added.

“The ACU, although it has made remarkable progress in some of its initiatives, requires more resources to strengthen its capacity to carry out its responsibilities under the law, including raising public awareness about the law,” said Chantha Kim, programs officer for ADB in Cambodia.

Mr Kim said that new reforms took time to implement and the ADB was entering discussions over training staff and providing advice.

Chheng Kimlong, economics lecturer at the University of Cambodia, said that a lot of changes could not be expected so early on. “The government is trying to create an institution to fight corruption to improve the business climate,” Mr Kimlong said. “By fighting corruption, more investors will become more confident that they will not lose money or have to pay officials behind the scenes.”

However, it would probably take about five years for the anti-corruption unit to gain the independence needed to work effectively, he added.

Low wages for civil servants encourage corruption while police, prosecutors and judges needed to be more effective, the ADB report said. “The risk is [related legal] institutions will remain weak and corrupt and frustrate anti-corruption efforts.” Although perceptions of corruption were improving, corruption remained in public agencies, it said.

The National Council for Anti-Corruption spokesman Keo Remy said yesterday that it was not his role to speak for the ACU. “We just monitor the execution of the ACU and set up policies,” Mr Remy said, referring questions to ACU president Om Yentieng who could not be reached.

Chheang Vun, CPP lawmaker and chairman of the National Assembly’s foreign affairs, international cooperation, information and media department, defended the government’s anti-corruption policies saying that the report’s authors did not understand the situation here. “The authors may have used analysis based on their experience in their home countries,” Mr Vun said.

The ACU has required the Social Affairs Ministry to pay back more than $5 million to the state budget after funds were embezzled through falsified budgets and pensions collected in the name of ‘ghost’ veterens.

In May former Pursat prosecutor Tob Chan Sereivuth became the first person to be tried and sentenced in a case brought by the anti-corruption unit. Mr Chan Sereivuth received a 19-year prison sentence on multiple counts of corruption, illegal detention and extortion.

The ACU has also pursued several other targets including narcotics officers. Nevertheless critics complain the ACU’s asset declaration is not transparent enough and has no provisions regarding the assets of official’s spouses or relatives.

Sok Sam Oeun, president of the Cambodian Defenders Project, said that the government could not solve pervasive corruption by simply arresting all corrupt officials and police. “Corruption is like a habit or culture so that’s why they need some time to allow them to be prepared.”

Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said that the first step was to educate people that the government was dedicated to clearing corruption even from within itself. “We are just beginning the job so there is room to change, but most important is the commitment that we are fighting against corruption,” Mr Siphan said.

However, SRP lawmaker Yim Sovann argued that the activities of the ACU were merely a facade and high-level government officials practiced corruption.

Mr Sovann said that the unit was made up of ruling party leaders with interests that conflicted the goal of curbing corruption. “They do not have the political will and commitment to counter corruption,” Mr Sovann said. “It is not difficult, but the problem is they do not want to do it.”

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