The government’s current system of registering births, marriages and deaths is incoherent and often corrupt and leaves society open to abuses as diverse as human trafficking and election-rigging, observers say.
Peace and stability have provided an impetus for parents to register their children. They want them to go to school, be healthy and even go overseas to study or work.
But citizens report local officials are demanding up to $100 for birth and marriage certificates, identification cards and family books: Essential identification that should, in theory, cost just a nominal sum.
“Now I want to do birth certificates for my children, because now the country is peaceful, and so the children, when they grow up, when they go to school, they need a birth certificate,” Phnom Penh resident Sok Sahor said. “If they don’t have this, they have difficulty getting school admission.”
Many people, particularly residents of rural areas, are simply unable to register the births of their children due to their location or financial circumstances. Without official identification, citizens cannot enroll in school, obtain a passport or register to vote.
The UN Children’s Fund is currently working with donors, NGOs and the government to revise the system of birth registration. Unicef Country Representative Louis-Georges Arsenault sees the reform as critical to rebuilding Cambodia’s civil society.
“Birth registration needs to be free and there needs to be a sound system,” he said. “The government needs to make this a top priority—it is paramount.
“It is a fundamental human right to have a name,” Arsenault added.
“When my daughter was born three weeks ago, I was asked to pay 45,000 riel for her birth certificate,” Sok Sahor said. “I have a salary, so I could pay the money to the local authority. But it is too much for poor people. What happens to the people who sell vegetables in the market?” Sok Sahor said.
“If I do not pay this money it will make problems for my daughter when she goes to school,” he added.
Adults who were not registered at birth or during childhood and are now applying for identification are particularly open to exploitation.
“I paid my commune councilors $35 for a marriage certificate,” said Ty Pouch, a Battambang province resident who married in 1993 but only recently applied for documentation. “When I asked them why they took such a lot of money, they said they needed it for their service and for paper.”
“Everyone knows about the corruption of government officials and local authorities,” she added. “It has become a habit.”
Hean Mao, the chief of Tumnob Toek commune in Chamkar Mon district, blamed the bribery on the low salaries of local officials. He claims people pay for official documents out of pity for the impoverished employees of local authorities.
“Communes do not demand a lot of money from people. According to the law, people need to pay around 500 riel for their birth certificates, but people give them more because they pity them, as their salary is so small.”
“They cannot even afford to buy gasoline for their motorcycles,” Hean Mao said of local government officials. “If they do not do this they will work and eat only paper.”
Sak Setha, the director general of administration at the Ministry of Interior, admitted that the fees are unlawful, and said the ministry is attempting to stamp out the practice of bribery in the official records process.
“We do not need parents to pay a lot of money for their child’s birth certificate,” he said. “They just need to pay 700 to 1000 riel.”
“When I heard about this [bribery] last month, I called commune council members and secretaries and asked them to attend a meeting in Phnom Penh,” Sak Setha continued. “I advised them to only take money from people as stipulated and not to force them to pay more than the lawful amount.”
Sak Setha has little sympathy for officials who claim the fees are a fair compensation for their low income. “It is not a problem of salary, because commune council members get a fair salary and the corruption is still going on,” he said.
Some villagers claim police and commune officials are visiting residents’ homes and pressuring them to buy family books, costing between $30 and $50. Without this document, which contains details of a family’s lineage, citizens cannot register to vote. As the mid-January period of voter registration for next July’s general election approaches, citizens keen to cast their votes are increasingly open to graft.
According to Kek Galabru, founder of the human rights organization Licadho, the current birth registration process makes it easy for political information to be tampered with. “It means poor people cannot register to vote, and leaves the election process open to manipulation from authorities,” she said.
Democracy is challenged, and so are the futures of Cambodia’s children, Galabru said. In addition to the education process being threatened by children without birth certificates being unable to attend school, the system also exposes children to abuse and exploitation.
“In terms of adoption and trafficking, the lack of registration means baby-selling is made easy,” Galabru said.
Currently, parents are required to register the birth of their children with their commune authorities. But the exaction of fees and long distances to commune offices often put parents off.
“People should be registering their children the day they are born, or as near to it as possible,” said Arsenault, the Unicef representative. “If we want this to happen, we need to be creative in reaching rural areas; one of the things we are thinking about is making pagodas responsible for registration.”
“Right now, the registration system is pretty much ad-hoc. The commune is responsible for it, but there is no real system,” he added.
Cambodia’s troubled recent history is mostly to blame for the current disarray in records offices across the country. The large majority of public records were destroyed during the Khmer Rouge regime, and births and marriages that took place during those years either went unrecorded or were crudely registered.
A new system of records was established during the 1980s, but this was again totally discarded with the arrival of Untac in 1991. It is only since the end of the last decade that officials have been attempting to re-establish a solid registration system. And the result, according to Galabru, is completely lacking in credibility.
Few citizens born between the late 1970s and the late 1990s have any documents to show they exist. So, for the time being at least, if a Cambodian citizen wants to prove his identity, he must pay for it.