Diplomat: Time, Aid Requests ‘Bad Excuse’
Prime Minister Hun Sen and his administration may contend that corruption could be dealt with better if more funding were thrown at the problem, but foreign officials said Wednesday there are steps the government needs to take now to show their commitment lessen the risk of losing the support of donors.
“With sufficient political will, steps can be taken immediately,” US Ambassador Kent Wiedemann told an anti-corruption conference Wednesday morning.
In his keynote address to conference members, the prime minister said that the government was committed to “streamlining” the government, but asked for time.
“It takes a long time to build up institutions, drafting laws that are effective. Rome was not built overnight,” Hun Sen said.
Responding to that, Wiedemann said the government’s request for “technical assistance” or more time to draft corruption laws was “a bad excuse.”
Hun Sen and his Council of Ministers could require high-level officials to account for their wealth, the ambassador said.
“The government could, on its own, issue administrative instructions to officials to publish…a list of their own personal wealth and the sources of that wealth,” Wiedemann said.
Singapore Ambassador Verghese Mathews said officials in his country who own lavish houses and drive luxury cars that seem beyond their income are immediately called before an anti-corruption board to explain themselves.
Cambodia “must have an anti-corruption agency that has power,” Mathews said. “People must have faith in that agency. The government must show the political will, the commitment and the tenacity…to put an end to corruption.”
Such an accounting could cause “an overwhelming mutiny from those fellow senior servants,” Wiedemann said during a break at the conference, but Hun Sen should face it and use his authority as Cambodia’s leader.
“They wouldn’t want to do it, clearly, but he is the prime minister,” Wiedemann said.
While that it is a fine idea, it would be impossible to track the money of corrupt officials, Khmer Institute for Democracy Lao Mong Hay said.
“It would be virtually impossible to force those people to declare their assets,” he said, adding that Cambodia lacked the leadership or independent bodies to do that.
“We have tried before. And we failed,” he said.
If corruption isn’t stamped out soon, both the donors and the voters are going to tire of excuses, Wiedemann said.
“Donors are not stupid. The people of Cambodia are not blind. They’re not stupid either….They’re aware that their leaders are corrupt,” he said.
In other countries, as more and more people realize they are affected by corruption, “they have a tendency to throw their leaders out,” Wiedemann said.
In January, donors warned Hun Sen and government leaders that the pace of reform was too slow, especially the curbing of corruption and providing more budget accountability.
Despite those warnings, the donors at June’s Consultative Group meeting in Tokyo in June gave the government more than they asked for—$615 million—including $55 million in aid to NGOs.
But donors are losing patience, Wiedemann said.
“The government keeps coming up with excuses. My point is, is that it’s just an excuse….There’s immediate action they can take now,” he said.
Other speakers at Wednesday’s conference did not call for specific action such as an audit of senior ministers. But they did say that the Cambodian people suffer under corruption.
“Weak government compromises the delivery of services to the poor and makes them more vulnerable,” said Eva Mysliwiec, director of the Cambodia Development Resource Institute.
Mathews said that other governments in the past had seen first-hand what happens once the public discovers corruption. Once they see it is not “the normal way of doing things,” corrupt administrations do not last long, he said..
“Unless you have a government that is tenacious in fighting corruption, it won’t do much good,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Kay Kimsong)