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Losing the battle against endemic corruption in Cambodia

Despite token efforts, the country ranks last among ASEAN nations

<p>Military police on guard outside the Anti-Corruption Unit headquarters in Phnom Penh (photo by Abby Seiff)</p>

Military police on guard outside the Anti-Corruption Unit headquarters in Phnom Penh (photo by Abby Seiff)

  • Abby Seiff, Phnom Phen
  • Cambodia
  • December 3, 2013
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Every weekday Kong Savuth gets his two daughters ready for school and then sends them off with $2.50 apiece. Some of that goes to food, most goes to the teachers.

Woefully underpaid, the girls’ teachers – like thousands across Cambodia – require that each of their students make an informal daily payment.

During exam season, the costs mount higher as students are required to bring money to pay off non-teaching staff as well.

By the end of each year, Savuth reckons, he has paid more for public school than had he sent them to private schools. But private school fees have to be paid in a lump sum, which he can never afford. “We’re living day by day,” he says.

When Savuth takes his mother to a public hospital for breast cancer treatment, he knows to bring enough money to slip the doctors, nurses and technicians.

“If you don’t have the money,” he says, “they won’t give you the medicine and won’t care for you.”

Even just parking his tuk tuk requires certain finagling. If he wants to place it near a choice tourist attraction he has to hand over $5 to $10 a month to ensure the police officers look the other way.

Though the government typically downplays the problem, corruption pervades every aspect of daily life and affects every strata of the population in Cambodia.

In the annual global index released today by Transparency International (TI), it was ranked 160 of 177 countries and given a score of 20. Pulling data from seven institutions including the World Bank, World Economic Forum and Economist Intelligence Unit, the index ranks public perceptions of corruption on a scale ranging from 0 (most corrupt) to 100 (perfectly clean).

With little variation, the Cambodia score has hovered at around 20 since its first appearance in the rankings.

“Over the years it seems like there is no improvement,” said Ok Serei Sopheak, a TI Cambodia board member.

“We agree this is a situation that we need to be worried about. We need to recognize this,” he told reporters at the index’s launch in Phnom Penh. “That is why the ruling party lost a lot of votes this election, as a result of corruption – that’s why we need to recognize this situation.”

In July, for the first time since Cambodia began holding democratic elections in 1993, the ruling party saw a decline in their share of the vote. Where they had previously held 90 of 123 seats, the Cambodian People’s Party dropped to 68 seats. The rest were won by an increasingly powerful and vocal opposition party that had successfully tapped into a vein of severe dissatisfaction with the status quo.

When the ruling party refused to hold a recount in contested areas and insisted on voting in the new government, despite an ongoing boycott by the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, popular discontent grew. Now, mass rallies have become a mainstay across Cambodia.

Against this backdrop, many are wondering whether the ruling party government will ever truly push for real reform.

On the surface, Cambodia appears committed to addressing corruption. In 2010, after 15 years of discussion, parliament passed an anti-corruption law and launched an Anti-Corruption Unit. But both have since come under attack for lacking teeth at best and, at worst, being employed as a political tool to shut down officials who have fallen out of favor.

And though a number of high-level cases have been successfully prosecuted, observers say the government still isn’t doing enough to tackle the root of the problem.

The drop in score this year, meanwhile, means Cambodia is now ranked last among ASEAN nations.

“Last year we ranked number eight, this year 10,” said Serei Sopheak . “We are the lowest. We’re doing worse than Laos or Myanmar, and those two countries don’t have economies as good as ours. This is the mirror that shows we need to change.”

The Anti-Corruption Unit did not respond to requests for comment, but government spokesman Phay Siphan called the TI report foreign “propaganda” that did not reflect reality.

“Most Westerners don’t like the country but Cambodians do,” he said. “Cambodia never had the Anti-Corruption Unit, we do now, we never had the anti-corruption law, we do now – that’s a commitment by the government to the nation.”

But for many Cambodians, that effort is simply not enough. Sitting at the edge of the conference room where the new corruption report was being presented, a group of university students looked on warily.

“In Cambodia, you have corruption everywhere,” said 19-year-old Pheap Panny, a banking student at a Phnom Penh college. “I think it is the same now as always.”

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