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Corruption Could Cost Millions in Abandoned Investment

Franklin Ly, a Cambodian-American who estimates his worth is at least $1 million, had a plan to invest in Cambodia. He aborted it, he said, because of corruption and a weak rule of law.

"We wished to invest in Cambodia, in water, real estate, buying and selling land, whatever,"

Ly said recently. "But the fear and concern is that, because a plot of land sells to five owners, with just a land ownership certificate, the rule of law is not clear or consistent. So we were fearful." Ly's concerns for his homeland are a continuing story as Cambodian-Americans make wealth abroad and consider investing back home.

"We really want to go there," to invest, he said. "Because it's our homeland, and you always want to go back."

So far, though, Cambodians abroad, as well as many other potential investors, have found it hard to do so, despite assurances from the government to donors and the international community it is trying to tackle its endemic corruption.

Commerce Minister Cham Prasidh on a recent trip to the US claimed he and the government were working to curb corruption by reducing processing time on documents and to computerize files for businessmen to apply online to "reduce bribery." He said the system would go online at the end of the year.

And when Prime Minister Hun Sen recently met with new World Bank head Robert Zoellick last week, Hun Sen promised he was fighting corruption.

Not everyone is so sure there is much behind these promises.

Speaking to a group of Cambodian-Americans while on a visit to the US last week, US Ambassador Joseph Mussomeli said there was little political will among officials to fight corruption or to tackle investment as Thailand and Vietnam had.

"If they want Cambodia to gain its former glory, then it's going to have to really do some thing about corruption," he said. "But the political will, like the will to actually diet and exercise, it's much harder.

"Cambodian officials, I think, realize that corruption is so bad that something has to be done about it. But to do some thing about it is very painful. It will take great discipline, great focus and great sacrifice."

More and more US companies are looking to invest, he said, for the first time since the 1970s.

For Cambodian investors like Franklin Ly, who knows investment interest is out there, the situation is frustrating. Even more so, he said, because it is his home country.

With too much corruption and no law, these investors are "frightened," he said. "If so, it affects whom? Cambodians and Cambodia's economy. Because there are no jobs for people. If more people come to invest, more factories will mean more jobs, and that is of interest to Cambodia and its economy."