Prime Minister Hun Sen lashed out at the private sector and international community at a regional conference on fighting corruption held in Phnom Penh on Wednesday, but also lauded his government’s own progress in implementing anti-graft measures.
During a speech to open the Eighth Regional Anti-Corruption Conference, which was attended by dozens of delegates from across the Asia-Pacific, Mr. Hun Sen said that a three-pronged approach was being taken with a focus on education, prevention and law enforcement.
“The government has from the beginning [of the fifth mandate] made it clear to the leadership of each ministry and institution that they have to work on their internal reforms,” Mr. Hun Sen said.
Cambodia last year ranked 160th out of 177 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index and has long faced criticism over rampant graft in the public sector and courts.
But Mr. Hun Sen on Wednesday chose to attack Cambodia’s private sector, saying companies were equally responsible for the continuing corruption in Cambodia, which loses about 10 percent of its annual GDP to corruption each year, according to the International Labor Organization.
“Please don’t forget that the private sector is the one who bribes,” Mr. Hun Sen told attendees. “If the private sector do not bribe, how could the government officials get the money?
“So I request the private sector not to bribe, I request the private sector to make clean investments.”
In a series of apparently off-the-cuff remarks—a copy of his prepared speech given to delegates did not include his most strident criticisms—Mr. Hun Sen hit back at reports from international organizations that paint Cambodia’s economy in a poor light.
The annual Anti-Money Laundering Index, released last month by the Swiss-based Basel Institute, ranked Cambodia as the world’s third most at-risk country for money laundering and terrorist financing due partly to serious corruption concerns.
“Many other countries suffer like Cambodia too, where the rich [countries] can say what they like and if [the governments] don’t allow them, they cut the assistance,” Mr. Hun Sen said.
The prime minister also attacked diplomats who propose investments in Cambodia on behalf of companies from their country, saying they usually pushed for an unfair share of profit.
“I don’t hear any ambassadors come to me and request that Cambodia has the higher share and the company has the lower profit. That’s the truth,” he said.
At one point, Mr. Hun Sen turned to officials seated on the stage behind him from the Asian Development Bank (ADB), which organized the conference along with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
The prime minister told them to “be careful” to avoid the kinds of financial scandals that have hit International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde and former World Bank president Paul Wolfowitz.
“But our ADB does not have such a reputation yet,” he said. “The ADB must be careful, you be careful…. I hope that the ADB’s name will not be spoiled like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. I hope that.”
He also recounted a story about the international community—specifically the U.S. and the World Bank—trying to persuade him to privatize the customs department in 2004, which he said would have put “guns, grenades and helicopters” in the hands of the private sector.
After becoming increasingly passionate during his nearly hour-long speech, Mr. Hun Sen apologized to the audience and appeared to return to his script, saying there was still “a long way to go” to address corruption in the country.
A number of representatives from foreign governments were unwilling to comment on Mr. Hun Sen’s speech Wednesday, with one saying it was “too sensitive” while another attributed the general reluctance to their being guests in the country.
Those who did comment, such as Kapila Waildyartne, a solicitor-general in Sri Lanka’s Attorney General’s department, were positive about the government’s anti-corruption measures.
“What I saw is they are on the correct path, they are aware and making progress,” he said.
During an earlier speech, Clare Wee, the head of the ADB’s Office of Anti-Corruption and Integrity, said corruption levels were higher than ever in Asia but praised Cambodia’s efforts to date.
As well as setting up an Anti-Corruption Unit in 2010, the government has more recently taken steps to address rampant cheating in high school examinations and has announced plans to begin a campaign against “ghost” employees on state payrolls.
Singapore-based Carsten Rosenkranz, the director of business development in Thomson Reuters’ governance, risk and compliance division, said he was taken aback by Mr. Hun Sen’s tone.
“It was quite surprising; you don’t really hear a politician talk like that very often,” Mr. Rosenkranz said. “In Singapore, politics is so soft, you don’t really hear debate like that.”
Djamel El Akra, an international lecturer at the Royal University of Law and Economics in Phnom Penh, said Cambodia’s selection as the conference venue raised questions in his mind, given the country’s poor record on corruption.
“I think that [Mr. Hun Sen] just delivered the message the international community wants to hear regarding the country’s fight against corruption,” he said.
“The political leaders here have money and power, but what they lack is international legitimacy and such events may give them that international legitimacy,” he said.