Cambodia is now perceived to be the most corrupt country in Southeast Asia, according to Transparency International’s 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), which was released on Wednesday and promptly dismissed by the country’s anti-graft chief.
While Cambodia’s CPI score—21 out of a possible 100 points—remained the same as in 2014, the country failed to keep pace with Burma, which saw a one-point bump to an overall score of 22.
The country’s 21-point total places it on par with Burundi and Zimbabwe, which tied for 150th out of the 168 countries surveyed in this year’s index—one place behind Burma. Singapore garnered a score of 85, the highest in the region and eighth highest in the world.
Speaking during the report’s launch in Phnom Penh, Preap Kol, executive director of Transparency International (T.I.) Cambodia, said Cambodia’s score landed it in the “highly corrupt” category.
Mr. Kol attributed Cambodia’s lack of improvement to corruption in the judiciary.
“Simply speaking, the judicial system and rule of law still have problems, so it reduces scores and Cambodia loses its opportunity to increase its score for 2015,” he said. “If we look at the investment and commercial climate, it has improved.”
Speaking after the event, Pech Pisey, T.I. Cambodia’s director of programs, said Cambodia’s judiciary was firmly controlled by powerful individuals and unable to provide justice for “ordinary Cambodians.”
“I think a lot of the way the judicial system conducts their work is basically influenced by groups of elites—political elites and also commercial elites,” Mr. Pisey said.
“The ordinary people who do not have political affiliation with anyone, when they try to access judicial services, the judicial officials wouldn’t care to provide it to them. They demand things in return,” he said. “They do so because nobody prosecutes them, nobody watches them, [and] nobody sanctions them.”
Mr. Pisey added that while the judiciary continued to be plagued with corruption, he had seen encouraging improvements from a few ministries.
“Education and Commerce [Ministries] stand out as the top…. You see lots of reform going on,” Mr. Pisey said, attributing the reforms to changes in leadership and the appointment of “more young competent people” to roles within the ministries.
The Education Ministry has for the past two years clamped down on rampant cheating during the high school exit exam, while the Commerce Ministry last year moved the business registration process online, ostensibly eliminating the potential for bribery.
Contacted by telephone, Anti-Corruption Unit chairman Om Yentieng said he put no stock in the annual index.
“The CPI scoring of T.I., not only does Cambodia not accept it, but it is also criticized by experts and many people who study anti-corruption issues around the world,” Mr. Yentieng said in an email.
“The data and methodologies of collecting information are not good enough. It depends on the opinion of a group of people who can bring about biased and unfair results.”
Mr. Yentieng claimed the CPI did not even enjoy the support of T.I.’s Cambodia chapter.
“The people of T.I. itself do not support such scoring and they also want their organization to eliminate the CPI,” he said.
Asked for comment in response to Mr. Yentieng’s accusation, Mr. Pisey said it was the chairman’s “right to defend Cambodia.”
“We would prefer not to react to this. We have to respect what he believes and thinks,” he said.
Mr. Pisey added that while T.I. Cambodia actively worked with the government—it recently signed a memorandum of understanding with the Interior Ministry to open a “school of governance”—the results of the CPI were “not at all” compromised.
While Mr. Yentieng rejected the results of the CPI, senior CNRP lawmaker Son Chhay said the Anti-Corruption Unit was only hindering the fight against graft.
“The anti-corruption body is just a tool of the government to cover up corruption,” Mr. Chhay said.
As for the country’s judiciary, Mr. Chhay said it was like a “fish market.”
“You go there and you are bargaining,” he said. “It depends on how much you are able to bribe the judge and prosecutor.
“It’s the powerless and poor who are the most vulnerable with this kind of corrupt judicial system in the country.”
© 2016, Anthony Jensen. All rights reserved.