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Global Witness Skeptical of Anti-Corruption Measures

Social activists carry an anti-corruption banner during a rally in Phnom Penh.
Social activists carry an anti-corruption banner during a rally in Phnom Penh.

The environmental watchdog Global Witness on Tuesday lambasted the government's recent anti-corruption efforts as unpersuasive and warned donor countries a new law would not attack the problem at senior levels of government.

“This strategy will will not succeed in catching the real villains,” Global Witness representative George Boden said in a statement Tuesday, referring to the recent passage of anti-corruption legislation and the formation of an anti-corruption investigative unit. “This does not represent a break from the well-documented and entrenched patterns of corruption at the highest levels of Cambodia's government, and it should not be welcomed as such.”

The anti-corruption law and Anti-Corruption Unit have been criticized as toothless to attack the pervasive corruption across the government. But government officials have dismissed the criticism and called Global Witness' statement untrue.

Global Witness, which was expelled from the country in 2005 after critical reports of the timber trade, said the ACU was too close to the executive branch of government to effectively prosecute “senior political figures.”

“The threat of defamation against whistleblowers is also likely to deter many from coming forward,” the group said. It also called Om Yentieng, the head of the ACU, “a close associate of Prime Minister Hun Sen [who] has links to mining interests.”

“Global Witness has repeatedly documented how senior Cambodian government officials have sold off the rights to the country’s natural resources in dubious deals, against the interests of ordinary Cambodians and the environment,” the group said. “Senior figures close to the prime minister have personally benefited from this wholesale stripping of the country’s assets, and yet very little action has been taken to address this situation.”

“The Cambodia government has a track record of pacifying its international aid donors with reformist rhetoric and commitments to transparency, while in fact doing little to change their actual behavior,” Boden said. “This anti-corruption strategy looks like the latest example of this tactic.”

Keo Remy, a spokesman for the Anti-Corruption Council, a policy body built by the new law, dismissed the statement. Specifically, he said, the law was set up to protect informants.

“The government did not establish this law in vain,” he said. “It was established with the willingness to crack down on corruption.”

Donors, meanwhile, had shown “a lot of support” for the anti-corruption measures, he said, adding that all countries, including Global Witness' UK, have forms of corruption.

“But for Cambodia, we knew this, and we made a law, and the government showed its willingness to prevent and counter it,” Keo Remy said.