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Millions Inside Cambodia and Outside Subject to Corruption

Social activists carry an anti-corruption banner during a rally in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Social activists carry an anti-corruption banner during a rally in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
WASHINGTON DC - Cambodia is one of the worst-corrupt countries in the world, but it is not unique. Millions of people have to pay bribes for simple public services and other forms of corruption, Transparency International says.

“We have hundreds of millions of people around the world who face daily extortion,” said Hugette Labelle, chair of Transparency International, speaking recently at the launch of the watchdog’s annual corruption index.

Cambodia ranked 157th of 174 countries, one of the worst in Southeast Asia, according to the index, which takes into account local and national governance, anti-corruption legislation and enforcement, access to government information, abuses of government ethics and conflicts of interest.

Cambodia’s poor ranking makes doing business difficult there, which ultimately harms development, Labelle said.

“If your competition can win a contract by putting a bribe and money under the table, then of course it’s very difficult for you to operate in a clean way in those circumstances,” she said.

Commerce Minister Cham Prasidh, who was recently in Washington for a meeting with the US-Asean Business Council, among others, told VOA Khmer in an interview that Cambodia is working on its corruption issues.

Cambodia has also tried to remove under-the-table payments for investment and replaced them with official fees, he said. “For US companies, this won’t be an issue,” he said. “They have money, they can afford it, so long as we issue them a proper receipt.”

But critics say even if the laws are there, their implementation and enforcement remain weak, worsening the corruption.

“They have arrested some officials, which deserves our applause,” Pa Nguonteang, executive director of the Cambodian Center for Independent Media, told VOA Khmer. “But it is not a systematic cleaning. So far this is more of a strengthening of one faction’s power base.”

This includes a new anti-corruption law and the formation of the Anti-Corruption Unit, he said, which “has so far cracked down on court officials and those who are close to the [ruling party president] Chea Sim,” Pa Nguonteang said.

Officials at the Anti-Corruption Unit could not immediately be reached for comment.

Transparency International noted a number of corrupt leaders forced from office last year. Tunisia, Libya and Egypt all saw upheavals in their leadership this year, and Syria is now in deep conflict. Those countries ranked better than Cambodia in terms of corruption, but most observers say they do not expect any Arab Spring-like unrest in Cambodia.

However, Yim Sovann, a spokesman for the opposition Sam Rainsy Party, said that people are beginning to understand the effects of corruption in their own lives.

“So someday they will rise up to fight against corruption,” he said. “This will happen when they know that corruption is the root cause of poverty, human rights violations, and loss of their farmland, [and that] it is enriching a small group of people, giving them millions of hectares of land, and causing an influx of illegal immigrants.”

Government spokesman Phay Siphan said the current government has a high approval rating, while the opposition “can only talk about corruption and attacks the prime minister.”