The Council of Ministers on Friday approved the long-awaited draft of an anti-corruption law, but critics worry they will have little chance to change it when it comes up for parliamentary debate.
The law will attempt to rein in the country’s endemic corruption, which starts with traffic police taking bribes from overloaded trucks and ends with senior ministers taking kickbacks for lucrative land and business dealings.
Cambodia ranks No. 158 out of 180 countries on Transparency International’s corruption index, putting it ahead of only Burma and Laos in the region. The country loses as much as $500 million a year in revenue to corruption, according to US estimates.
“The anti-corruption law is a part of the reform program of the royal government, for good governance, strengthening the rule of law, sustainable development and poverty reduction,” according to a statement by the Council of Ministers issued Friday.
The three main strategies in the law, the statement said, are education and prevention; curbing corrupt acts through legal measures; and “participation and support from the public.”
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said Friday the law would establish an independent anti-corruption council. It also requires the declaration of assets by parliamentarians, government officials, military personnel, police, judges, prosecutors and court clerks. The draft law provides a jail provision from 1 month to 15 years.
“If the anti-corruption law comes into effect, corruption in Cambodia will be reduced more than in the past,” Mam Sitha, president of the Cambodian Independent Anti-Corruption Committee, a non-governmental organization, said Friday. “Even though we don’t know the effectiveness of the law, it’s better that we have the law.”
The draft law was initially proposed in 1994 and has since been amended with inputs from non-governmental organizations, government critics and donors. The draft reached the National Assembly floor in 2003 but was sent back for improvements. It has since been with the administration.
“What the government wants is a law that is effective, promotes the rule of law and has no discrimination in delivering public services,” Phay Siphan said Thursday. “The law will ensure that there is no abuse of power or of public confidence.”
The draft, which was not disclosed publicly Friday, is expected to reach the National Assembly for debate next week.
Opposition lawmakers doubt they will have a chance to contribute to the debate over the law. In the past, some laws have passed without a single word changed, and opposition lawmakers worry they will not have enough time to study the new draft.
“Corruption in Cambodia is systematic, existing from the bottom to the top,” Kem Sokha, president of the opposition-aligned Human Rights party, said. “It does not happen by chance as in other countries, or in Cambodia’s past. We have to start cleaning it from the top first, and if the court dares not prosecute leaders, the anti-corruption law will only be a tool to prosecute low-ranking officers and those whom the powerful don’t support.”
Yim Sovann, spokesman for the leading opposition Sam Rainsy Party, suggested that recommendations from civil society, which include setting up an independent anti-corruption body, should be included. Access to information should be mandated, he said.
“If we cannot have access to information in public and government institutions, especially involving corrupt officials in the government, we cannot effectively fight corruption...and the law we are making now will become just a blank paper,” Yim Sovann said.
Donors, who provide hundreds of millions of dollars to government coffers each year, have pushed hard for anti-corruption legislation, threatening strict conditions on aid or to spend their money on other countries in need.
Meanwhile, local organizations argue that corruption hinders the rule of law. And it remains to be seen how effectively the new law will be in curbing corruption.
“Victory depends on the law and what is in it,” said Chea Vannath, a political analyst and former head of the Center for Social Development. “If the law focuses on prevention, education, and awareness promotion, the implementation will be based on that.”
A law that focuses on legalities and punishment will be hard to enforce, and less fruitful, she said. “It is difficult to hunt down a perpetrator and punish him. It takes lots of time and money, but the result is small.”