Cambodia: corruption concerns amid hopes for the future

Cambodia: corruption concerns amid hopes for the future

The United Nations Transitional Authority was ushered into Cambodia from 1992-1993 to establish a multiparty democracy following decades of strife. Twenty years on, how does the country fare regarding corruption?

There is no doubt that Cambodian lives have greatly improved over the last two decades: the economy is thriving and the country is at peace. Remarkable progress has been made in the reduction of child mortality, HIV/AIDS. The percentage of the population living below the poverty line has significantly decreased.

In 2010, the government passed the Anti-Corruption Law and established the Anti-Corruption Unit. Following this, cases of bribery, extortion and fraud have been prosecuted. The government has also organised multiple educational events to disseminate the Anti-Corruption Law.

Islands of change in the public sector demonstrate accountable and transparent governance, while the government continues to pledge its commitment to tackling corruption in its Rectangular Strategy for Growth. In October 2013, the prime minister issued a sub-decree demanding the proper taxation of importers by customs officials, to prevent customs revenue being undercut by bribery.

These are welcome transformations, but they are incomplete. According to survey data from the International Republican Institute, the percentage of Cambodians perceiving the country to be headed in the wrong direction doubled throughout 2013 to reach 43 per cent, with 30 per cent of these respondents highlighting corruption as the top reason why change is needed. There is a danger the Cambodian government will settle for the successes of economic development while corrupt practices remain widespread.

Corruption prevails? Events in 2013

In early 2013, 300 employees of Telecom Cambodia went on strike calling for the firm’s then director general, Lao Sarouen, to be removed for his suspected involvement in embezzling state-owned money. Shortly afterwards, the investigation into the complaint against Sarouen was abandoned by the Anti-Corruption Unit. Sarouen was then promoted to an under secretary of state position.

The case of pro-democracy activist and independent radio station owner, Mam Sonando underscores the lack of judicial independence as well as the curtailment of freedom of expression and of the media. Sonando was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment in 2012 on charges of masterminding a secessionist plot. Activists drew attention to the complete lack of evidence to support the charges. Sonando was released in March 2013.

The government stripped opposition lawmakers of their posts in June. The ruling party removed the parliamentarians’ positions and salaries only days before the National Assembly voted to pass a controversial Bill on the denial of Khmer Rouge crimes. The act highlights the lack of separation of powers between the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, the Executive and the Legislature. 

The July 2013 National Assembly elections were riddled with irregularities. Transparency International Cambodia, which deployed 906 observers across 409 polling stations, recorded irregularities in 60 per cent of polling stations. This included over-registration and use of temporary identification cards. The Joint Report on the Conduct of the 2013 Cambodian Elections shows that the irregularities favoured the ruling party. The opposition continues to protest over the disputed election.

Cambodia’s score slipped two points in the 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index. Given a score of 20 out of 100 and ranked 160 out of 177 countries, Cambodia sits alongside Eritrea and Venezuela. Regionally, Cambodia is ranked the most corrupt among its Association of Southeast Asian Nations counterparts.

US Ambassador to Cambodia William Todd publicly stated in September that corruption in the country is scaring off US firms. The World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business report showed a slip in Cambodia’s ranking from 135 in 2013 to 137 in 2014. This indicates that the business environment in the country is becoming less favourable.

The Global Fund published an extensive report in November revealing a network of bribery connected to the Ministry of Health. Officials working for the ministry received bribes in exchange for procurement contracts, set up fake bank accounts to manage illicit funds, and double- and triple-charged donors for the same expenses.

Transparency groups raised concerns over the US$1.5 billion left unaccounted for in the 2014 national budget. The figure – equivalent to 44 per cent of the entire budget – is reportedly under the control of Prime Minister Hun Sen. The centralised control of the considerable sum may increase opportunity for nepotism and embezzlement.

Hope for change: 2014 and beyond

Corruption remains prominent at all levels and across all sectors in Cambodia. The examples provided above are not an exhaustive list of all corruption-related activity in 2013, but serve to highlight some of the ongoing issues.

The vast numbers of people who voted for the opposition in the July National Assembly elections and protested against the election irregularities thereafter indicate that political transformation is called for.

The government must take account of the demands of its people. Nepotistic, corrupt practices might enable economic growth in the short term, but continued unaccountable, opaque governance is unsustainable. Hopefully, the government will put its stated anti-corruption commitments into greater practice in 2014.

For a more in-depth understanding of the corruption and transparency within Cambodia’s governance system, Transparency International Cambodia will publish the National Integrity System Assessment in May 2014.

For any press enquiries please contact press@transparency.org

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