Pervasive Corruption Still High on Donors’ List

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of stories to be published in The Cambodia Daily ahead of the June 19 to June 21 international donor meeting. The stories will mostly examine the various issues of reform the government continues to face, and the progress that has been made in those areas.


There are stories of teachers selling grades, bosses selling jobs and journalists selling opinions. NGO leaders have been known to sell donated goods, and rangers are often accused of selling logs and endangered wildlife.

The list goes on. Customs officials often sell safe passage for contraband, and politicians and bureaucrats often sell concessions, licenses, land titles, public assets and public fishing grounds.

And if anyone gets in trouble for it, one thing is still certain: Judges and police sell freedom.

It is easy to blame corruption on the greed of the high official in the expensive car, or the desperation of the low-paid policeman on the corner.

But some observers of Cambo­dian society believe that the roots of corruption lie deeper, both in Cambodia’s troubled recent history and in today’s attitudes toward politics and power that allow corruption to flourish.

Donors and reformist politicians, however, say this is no ex­cuse for the government not to take swift and dramatic action to stop corruption. And with Cam­bodia still a hierarchical society, starting at the top would send a strong message that corruption will not be tolerated, they say.

The government claims it is making strides toward ending corruption through enacting a variety of reforms. But one key element remains stalled.

In April 2001, the government claimed in its Governance Action Plan that the long-delayed anti-corruption law would be introduced within a year. But that has not occurred. And in its progress report to donors this year, the government drops any direct mention of the law.

For years donors have urged the government to make fighting corruption a top priority. With the attention of donor countries turning to new strategic locations like Afghanistan, the question is whether this will be the year donors finally lose patience.


Dan Adler, an adviser to the Community Legal Education Center NGO, tells the story about a lawyer friend whose mother had a case before a provincial court. The lawyer called the judge and began discussing the particulars of the case. At some point there was an awkward pause, as the judge seemed to lose interest. Finally the judge spoke up.

“I need a television,” he said. “A second-hand one would do fine.”

The story, unfortunately, is seen as typical of the blatant corruption in the courts. Adler believes that low judges’ salaries are only a part of the reason for the problem. Judges are not educated in the law, or inculcated with the idea that using it correctly will serve the higher ideals of justice and the common good, he said.

“Obviously, that judge was not adhering to the ideal of jurisprudence, by which judges decide cases on their merits,” Adler said.

The Khmer Rouge regime and years of civil war damaged—if not destroyed outright—institutions like education, the judiciary and the civil service, in which trained professionals see themselves as impartial servants of the public rather than merely as working for themselves or at the whims of their bosses.

What remains, or reemerges, are social patterns in which the highest good is not impartiality, but loyalty to powerful individuals.

At the top of the hierarchy is the prime minister himself. When Hun Sen is shown on television opening schools, fixing bridges and making donations, it often gives the impression that the prime minister, and not the taxes or donor money the government collects, is the benefactor.

Such actions feed an attitude known in academic systems as “personalism,” in which powerful individuals are more reliable than the government as an institution.

Hun Sen’s order closing karaoke parlors last year, a single-page directive, was never reviewed by parliament and did not cite any law. But it may have been one of the quickest and best-enforced laws of 2001, though some karaoke parlors eventually reopened. NGO officials at a conference last year said the closure should have been carried out through normal legislative channels, with more respect for rule of law.

Lower down in the hierarchy, government can often seem less like a service-oriented bureaucracy than an interlocking series of sometimes-feuding loyalties to powerful officials. Those loyalties have often been formed during the years of civil war and factional fighting, and carry over into the civil administration, Adler said.

The campaign to remove Funcinpec’s co-Minister of Interior You Hockry from office was supposedly over corruption and nepotism, but those charges were never fully discussed in public by either side inside Funcinpec. No hearings were held on evidence.

Instead, factions within Funcinpec have dueled it out. A petition signed by detractors was countered by a demonstration in which former Funcinpec fighters under You Hockry were bused to the capital to pledge their support.

The rule by personality can extend to the lowest levels of government. One insider at a powerful ministry describes a workplace where even the paltry monthly salaries are distributed at the whims of the supervisor.

In other cases, government employees must pay their bosses to keep positions that are themselves only lucrative due to graft. In either case, a bureaucrat’s success is based not on how well he serves the public, but on whether he can serve his boss and bestow favors on his subordinates, the insider said. Academics call these patron-client relationships.

“[Money and information] only goes to people who are loyal and who are connected to the top, whether they’re qualified or not,” said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The temptation for corruption may be all the stronger because of Cambodia’s weak economy, a legacy of war and of a recent communist past in which the government controlled all industry.

With government fees and revenues being such a large source of wealth, feeding from the public trough is considered virtually the only game in town.

“It’s a system where virtually all money and power comes from the government. The alternative is so bad, people are willing to go a long way to stay inside,” Adler said.

Adler believes that development of a true free market will help reduce the temptation toward corruption and personalism in government, just as trade eroded the power of feudal lords in Europe’s Middle Ages.


In its report to donors released in April, the government provided a laundry list of reforms that it says will help reduce corruption. They include land and forestry reform and establishing a National Auditing Authority, though the authority has yet to tackle any high-profile projects.

The report declares that streamlining bureaucratic procedures and raising salaries for workers, among other measures, will help reduce opportunities for corruption.

But the report dropped any direct mention of the anti-corruption law that has been in the works since 1998. The government writes only that “enacting anti-corruption law and regulations is one part of the equation” for fighting corruption.

“Rigorous implementation of those laws and regulations is another part,” it said.

The law, now in its 11th draft, was sent for review to the Council of Ministers in December 2000. But it has not emerged, said Heav Veasna of the Center for Social Development, an NGO that helped to draft the law.

“I think it is a lack of political will by the government, or the prime minister himself,” Heav Veasna said. “They don’t want this law to proceed to the National Assembly.”

Modeled after similar laws in Hong Kong and laws in several Asian countries—including Thailand—the legislation would give a special council the power to investigate individual corruption cases, with penalties ranging up to 15 years in prison and more than 30 million riel (about $7,700) in fines. Legislators and many civil servants would be required to declare their assets to the council every two years.

In October, the Asian Development Bank and other donors criticized the government for slow progress on reforms, especially in anti-corruption, judicial and civil service, an ADB representative said.

Ordinary Cambodians are often too preoccupied with day-to-day survival to worry about corruption, or too afraid to interfere with government after years of civil war, Heav Veasna said.

But for anti-corruption measures to succeed, corruption must be discussed more often than just before each annual donor meeting, he said. All sectors of society must unite, including donors, NGOs, monks and ordinary people.

“We can’t just pass this problem like a ball, from one to the other. We have to take it to the goal together.”


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