In unusually frank terms, Japanese Ambassador Takahashi Fumiaki took the government to task Thursday for its failure to pass an anti-corruption law.
“Despite such importance and urgency of the [anti-corruption] issue, we are regrettably obliged to express our deep concern and disappointment on the endeavors by the Royal Government of Cambodia,” the ambassador told a meeting between the government and major donors.
“Today we express our regret that the Royal Government has not yet submitted their draft law on anti-corruption to the National Assembly, which was supposed to be done by the end of June this year,” he said.
Takahashi also called on the government to prosecute senior officials for corruption.
“We have not heard any single incident in which high-ranking central government officials are accused or indicted for accepting bribery, though Samdech Prime Minister Hun Sen admitted several times the need to clamp down on rampant corruption cases in the country,” he added.
He also said the government “lacks a sense of urgency” about corruption and said donors “need to know the exact schedule” for passing the law, which has been debated for 12 years.
In his speech, however, Takahashi signaled that donors are prepared to accept a controversial new government anti-corruption committee created in August and headed by Hun Sen’s adviser Om Yentieng.
Responding to Japan’s unprecedented public criticism of the Hun Sen government, Hong Them, secretary of state at the Inspection Ministry, said that the Council of Ministers actually reviewed the draft anti-corruption law on Sept 12.
However, the Council of Ministers, which is headed by deputy prime minister Sok An, sent the draft back for review by a French expert in order to reconcile it with a new draft penal code, Hong Them told the Government Donor Coordinating Committee meeting.
Hong Them also highlighted the convictions in July of 11 officials involved in illegal logging discovered in 2004 in Ratanakkiri province’s Virachey National Park.
Those convicted were all low ranking police officers. Their senior commanders, including Ratanakkiri province’s former governor, former military chief and other senior officials are still at large.
Pierre Espieu, the French expert at the Justice Ministry who has reviewed the Anti-Corruption Law, confirmed by telephone that the Council of Ministers had returned the draft law. But he said that the Justice Ministry has already referred it back to the Inspection Ministry.
At the March Consultative Group meeting, donors and the government agreed that the National Assembly would pass an anti-corruption law by June.
Though it failed to pass the law by the agreed day, the government in August created an anti-corruption committee headed by Om Yentieng.
In his speech, Takahashi signaled that donors are prepared to accept the committee.
“We also believe that the new body will evolve into at least part of the Supreme National Council for Anti-Corruption once the new law is enacted,” he said.
After the meeting, the ambassador denied that donors were imposing an anti-corruption law on an unwilling government.
“We are not pressuring them, we don’t need to. It is an initiative of the Cambodian government,” he said.
Finance Minister Keat Chhon, who led the government delegation at the GDCC meeting, said the government was also disappointed by its lack of an anti-corruption law.
“It is not an easy job,” he told reporters after the meeting.
“All are disappointed…Cambodia is the foremost one,” he said. “The legal system has to match with the anti-corruption law. It is not easy.”
On Thursday, five international human rights organizations—Human Rights Watch, Global Witness, the Asian Human Rights Commission, and Forum-Asia—issued a statement to coincide with the donors meeting.
“Since the last donor meeting in March 2006, the government has made no tangible progress in meeting its commitments,” the groups said.
“The courts are still used to conduct sham trials, impunity prevails for government abuses and land grabbing by powerful military and private interests continues apace,” the rights groups added.
The statement called on donors to make aid contingent on solutions to these problems.
The statement also details the mass eviction of villagers living in Phnom Penh’s Tonle Bassac commune in June, which forced them into even more squalid conditions on the city’s outskirts.
Keat Chhon said Thursday that the government is working to solve the matter of land disputes and land grabbing “step by step.”
CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap said Human Rights Watch and Global Witness had spoiled Cambodia’s good name.
“I am not going to deny what they say but not everything they say is right,” he said.
“I would like the person who wrote the report to come and investigate for sure before writing the report and spoiling the name of my country,” he added.
(Additional reporting by Douglas Gillison)