Corruption in Cambodia was already rife, affecting every walk of life, toward the end of the communist regime in the late 1980s. It was and still is prevalent in every public institution everywhere and at every level: in schools, hospitals, fire services, the police, the army, the civil service, the judiciary, the government and the Parliament. It has also ravaged foreign aid given to the country.
In the early 1990s when the communist regime ended, the public called on the government to tackle the problem. In the mid-1990s, civil society began to organize seminars to highlight the issue and urge the government to enact an anti-corruption law. Many national seminars were held, at times presided over by prime ministers or their colleagues, not to mention many smaller meetings.
There were study tours for concerned senior government officials and lawmakers to countries in the region, including Singapore and Hong Kong, both of which are renowned for their effective anti-corruption laws and agencies. In 1998, the newly elected government promised to fight corruption and enact a law against it.
For their part, international donors began to feel the gravity of corruption and its negative impact on the aid they had given to Cambodia, to the tune of some US$500 million a year since the early 1990s. In 2002, together with the Cambodian government, they made the fight against corruption and the enactment of an anti-corruption law one of the benchmarks for the flow of aid.
Under such pressure the government finally submitted to the National Assembly an anti-corruption bill – which had been drafted and redrafted many times, well before the adoption of the U.N. Convention against Corruption in 2003.
Shortly after, this bill was withdrawn, to be redrafted again to bring it up to the convention’s standards. Meanwhile, deadlines set for the enactment of that law have repeatedly passed and the final draft has not yet seen the light of day.
In parallel with the pressure on the government to enact an anti-corruption law, successive studies were undertaken to look into corruption in Cambodia. A 2004 study conducted by the U.S. Agency for International Development in Cambodia showed that corruption cost the government between US$300 million and $500 million in revenue every year, an enormous sum for a poor country.
Another survey conducted two years later by the Economic Institute of Cambodia in Phnom Penh showed that in 2005 the private sector paid “unofficial fees”—that is, bribes – to public officials amounting to US$330 million, an amount it said was “2.5 times higher than that of official payment” and “represented also about 50 percent of the total government budget revenue in 2005.”
A more recent survey conducted by Transparency International showed that 72 percent of Cambodians reported paying a bribe to receive a public service in 2007, a percentage which was then the highest in the Asia-Pacific region and second only to Cameroon (79 percent) internationally. The same survey also showed that the judiciary and the police were viewed as the most corrupt institutions in the country. It should be added that in 2007 Cambodia ranked 162 out 179 countries in the TI Corruption Perceptions Index.
Corruption has affected not only the Cambodian people but also foreign donors on whom Cambodia very much depends. In 1999 there was a corruption scandal at the Cambodian Mine Action Center, an internationally funded government landmine clearance organization. That scandal led to the suspension of foreign aid to CMAC for some time.
In 2003, the World Bank discovered the misuse of funds in a project to demobilize 30,000 soldiers, and forced the Cambodian government to repay the missing money. In 2004, the World Food Program found that US$1.2 million of its aid had gone missing, and forced the Cambodian government to make up for it. In 2006, the World Bank discovered fraud and corruption in three of the projects it was funding. It suspended its funding for these three projects and requested the Cambodian government to make prompt repayment of the missing funds.
In early 2007, within six months after its creation, the internationally funded Khmer Rouge Tribunal encountered allegations of corruption in its human resource management. These allegations led to the introduction of corrective measures for better management.
These are a few of the cases known to the public and acknowledged by the government. Yet in all corruption cases very few, if any, suspected government officials have been brought to justice and made accountable for their corruption. Generally, they have simply been disciplined and removed from office and then, when their cases are no longer in the public mind, they have been reappointed to other, sometimes higher, positions.
Enacting an anti-corruption law and setting up an anti-corruption body may not end what is a common practice in Cambodia. It is nevertheless a significant step toward that end. The Cambodian government must not let its officials indulge in corruption with impunity. It must not continue to break its promises to its people and its foreign donors. It must heed the petition presented to the National Assembly and submit the long promised anti-corruption bill for adoption without further delay.
(Lao Mong Hay is a senior researcher at the Asian Human Rights Commission in Hong Kong. He was previously director of the Khmer Institute of Democracy in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and a visiting professor at the University of Toronto in 2003. In 1997, he received an award from Human Rights Watch and the Nansen Medal in 2000 from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.)