As World Bank officials and donor countries express concern over Cambodia’s inability to establish the rule of law, co-Minister of Interior Sar Kheng conceded Friday that if police continue to commit crimes without a proper legal system to prosecute them, Cambodia will plunge into “anarchy.”
“The criminals involved in the police, military and military police have made victims and people feel reluctant to cooperate or provide information to competent authorities,” Sar Kheng told a police workshop at the ministry.
People’s lack of confidence forces them to take matters into their own hands and commit “barbarous acts,” he said, and they go unpunished under an “inadequate legal system.”
“The respect and practice of law is not yet implemented here,” he said.
“If we allow the security situation to continue as it is, it not only will spoil the reputation and influence of any political party, it will spoil our whole nation and discredit its name in the world,” he concluded.
The speech was one of the strongest admissions to date by a prominent official that police, military police and soldiers regularly face no consequences for violating laws. Activists have underlined the problem as perhaps the biggest obstacle in the drive to reform society following years of civil strife and international isolation.
Sar Kheng’s concerns echo those of human rights groups, which consistently refer to a “culture of impunity” that exists for government employees who commit crimes without punishment.
Between January 1997 and October 1998, at last 263 people were killed with impunity by military, police and civil servants, according to a report issued in June by Adhoc and Licadho human rights groups.
Licadho Director Eva Galabru was reluctant to say whether Sar Kheng’s comments represent a tangible move forward and hinted he might instead be painting a positive picture for donors.
“Whether these comments translate into action is what we need to see, and what we’re hoping for,” she said.
A mission from the World Bank arrived in Cambodia last week to determine its assistance strategy to Cambodia in the coming years.
Underlying all of the country’s problems, a draft World Bank report said, are “weak governance and corruption in the public sector.” Government officials this week will attend a quarterly meeting with donor countries.
In recent weeks, high-ranking officials have admitted that some government operatives are involved in criminal activity.
But in his speech, Sar Kheng stressed that Cambodia’s unraveling moral fabric is not entirely explained by corruption. Increased robberies, kidnappings, prostitution, gambling and drug sales, he said, also are due to Cambodia’s influx of foreigners.
“Those we have arrested… mostly are addicted to gambling or they are drug users or they have been poisoned by foreign culture,” his speech said.
To deter rising crime, Sar Kheng called on the government to draft a law making robberies, kidnappings, murders and drug sales punishable by life in prison—despite earlier press reports that he was considering reinstating the death penalty.