Finance Minister Keat Chhon on Tuesday acknowledged corruption exists in his ministry and vowed to take action as urged by Hun Sen.
“I’m very thankful to Prime Minister Hun Sen for pointing out [corruption in] the Ministry of Finance,” said Keat Chhon, referring to a blistering attack by Hun Sen last week, in which the premier called the Finance Ministry the most corrupt ministry in Cambodia.
“I don’t deny what Prime Minister Hun Sen said. He gave me ammunition to clean up my ministry, take action against corrupt officials,” Keat Chhon said, upon returning from the Asian Development Bank’s annual meeting in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Hun Sen last week threatened to intervene in the ministry’s daily operations if reform didn’t take place. The premier charged in a speech broadcast on Bayon Radio that “84 steps” are needed to be taken in order to receive government money from the ministry. “If we want to reform, we have to start at the Ministry of Finance first,” Hun Sen said.
The discussion of problems in the Finance Ministry comes just weeks before a major donors meeting in Paris, where Cambodia is hoping to receive a pledge of at least $500 million for the next year.
While acknowledging corruption in his ministry, Keat Chhon said Tuesday that the Finance Ministry shouldn’t be singled out, calling corruption “a worldwide disease.”
“The [recent World Bank-commissioned] survey on corruption didn’t point out only the Ministry of Finance, but also others,” the minister said.
“We have had too much [talk] about good governance—transparency and participation of private sector and civil society ….Good governance needs action. The government has to practice the [good governance] program in every field.”
Several government officials and donors said this week that corruption is an issue for all public institutions in Cambodia.
“We have heard that the Finance Ministry is corrupt. But we don’t know yet how big [the] corruption is,” said Khun Haing, minister of Parliamentary Relations and Inspection, which is sending an inspection team to the Finance Ministry next week. “But we cannot accuse only that ministry, because it is widespread in other ministries, too.”
“Corruption is widespread in various areas in Cambodia,” said Eiji Yamamoto, Japanese Embassy’s Consul. “Japan as well as other donors [must] keep an eye on the government’s efforts on anti-corruption.”
But several donors also articulated their support of Keat Chhon and wondered why Hun Sen singled out the Finance Ministry.
“In the donor community, a certain number of donors have had good, positive relations with the minister,” said Australian Ambassador Malcolm Leader. “We need to have a good relationship with the Ministry of Finance. Actually it’s been positive, generally good so far.”
Yamamoto said Japan also praises Keat Chhon’s performance, calling the minister “a clean and reliable politician.”
A foreign economics analyst said he wasn’t sure why Hun Sen all of a sudden has accused the Finance Ministry of corruption. But he said he suspected that Hun Sen might be testing the waters for a cabinet reshuffle that would include replacing Keat Chhon. Or, the analyst said, perhaps Hun Sen is criticizing the ministry so Keat Chhon can use the allegations as an excuse for dismissing some of his officials.
“Keat Chhon is conscientiously implementing requirements imposed by donors,” the economics analyst said.
“In my impression, he doesn’t play games with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund,” the analyst said on condition of anonymity.
Keat Chhon declined to comment when asked about the possible motivation behind Hun Sen’s remarks.
But he did say that his position in any country comes with enemies.
“In all countries, finance ministers say he has no friends in his government because the minister always says ‘no.’”
(Additional reporting by Lor Chandara)