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    Southeast Asia
     Jun 11, 2011

Potemkin graft crackdown in Cambodia
By Sebastian Strangio

PHNOM PENH - On the morning of May 12, Cambodia's local newspapers ran photos of a bedraggled figure being escorted from a small courthouse. The man, who wore a crumpled green shirt and clutched a water bottle as he leant on the shoulder of a security guard, was Top Chan Sereyvuth, a former prosecutor at the Pursat provincial court in the country's west.

During his trial, it was alleged he had ordered subordinates to extort money from a man found transporting wood through his province - just one in a long line of corrupt dealings. On May 11, judges at the court found him guilty on corruption charges and handed him a 19-year jail term. Two of his bodyguards were also sent down for 15 and 16 years respectively.

The Cambodian government welcomed Sereyvuth's conviction as

the first high-profile case to be brought by its new Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU), formed last year following the passage of long-awaited anti-graft legislation. While observers were initially divided about the government's commitment to fighting corruption, the ACU has so far netted some big fish.

In January, Sereyvuth was joined in custody by Moek Dara, secretary general of the National Authority for Combating Drugs (NACD), and Hun Hean, the police chief of Banteay Meanchey province in northwest Cambodia . Observers began to speak of a coordinated crackdown.

"Our government has made a strong effort to crack down on all bad activity," said Phay Siphan, spokesman of the Council of Ministers. "Everyone has to be behind one regulation together, no matter the color of their party, no matter what their position." Moek Dara is accused of leading a ring of corrupt officials involved in extortion and drug trafficking. Hun Hean and his deputy Chhieng Son are also being held on drug charges.

By any assessment, action against corruption in Cambodia is long overdue. In its 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index, global graft watchdog Transparency International ranked Cambodia 154th out of 178 countries for public sector corruption. Bribe-taking permeates daily life at every level, from the school system where children are known to pay small sums to teachers in order to attend class, to the emergency rooms where patients have reportedly died because their family lacked sufficient "tea money" for medical staff.

Still, there are questions about the motives behind the ACU's recent series of arrests. Some observers see the crackdown as a sop to foreign donors who historically have provided well over half of the Cambodian government's annual budget. Since the early 1990s, anti-corruption measures have been a perennial demand of the country's international backers but the passage of an anti-graft law only took place in March 2010.

"Donors have failed to hold a small corrupt elite to account," said George Boden, a campaigner for international graft watchdog Global Witness. "Donors should ensure that central government does not exert an undue influence over the anti-corruption agencies, that all credible allegations of corruption are investigated and that whistleblowers are given the protection that they deserve."

Factional divides
Another view is that the arrests have followed factional fault lines within the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) and that Prime Minister Hun Sen is using corruption as a pretext to eliminate rivals and shore up his patronage networks.

"Corruption is their way of controlling people. Why should they want to eradicate it?" said Son Soubert, a high privy councilor to King Norodom Sihamoni and outspoken government critic. He said the prosecutions were clearly being directed at those who are politically out of favor. "Those who are close to the prominent officials are sure to be protected," he said. "This is the system."

Carl Thayer, a professor at the Australian Defense Force Academy in Sydney, said the CPP has long been plagued by factional divisions, including between a group loyal to Hun Sen and another linked to aging CPP President and Senate President Chea Sim. He said that until recently the two factions had reached a stable modus vivendi, but since the defeat of its long-time royalist foe Funcinpec in the 2008 national election, the CPP has begun to rearrange itself along factional fault lines.

Jockeying reached a high water mark in early 2009, when General Ke Kim Yan, thought to be a Chea Sim loyalist, was removed as head of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF). His replacement, General Pol Saroeun, has been a staunch Hun Sen supporter since 1978 when he joined the Cambodian strongman in a revolt against Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot. At the time, observers said the replacement of Ke Kim Yan - as well as the appointment of seven new deputy commanders-in-chief, all thought to be Hun Sen loyalists - had consolidated the premier's control over the upper echelons of the armed forces.

Similarly, Son Soubert said those arrested in the recent crackdown have links to the faction of Chea Sim and Interior Minister Sar Kheng, who has close family links to the senate president. Moek Dara served under Ke Kim Yan in the latter's current appointment as chairman of the NACD, which falls under Sar Kheng's Interior Ministry.

Meanwhile, other arrests - including that of Banteay Meanchey police chief Hun Hean, who also answers to the Interior Minister - were made in the west of the country, a traditional stronghold of the Chea Sim/Sar Kheng faction. "[Sar Kheng's] constituency is very strong in Battambang, and in Banteay Meanchey too," Son Soubert said, adding that Ke Kim Yan hailed from the same region.

Son Soubert said the recent arrests, far from being salvos of a genuine crackdown, were ultimately little different from the case of Heng Pov, the feared former Phnom Penh police chief who was arrested in 2006 and is currently serving over 90 years in prison on a battery of charges including murder, counterfeiting, extortion and kidnapping. Like Heng Pov, he said, the other officials simply fell victim to political in-fighting.

Others said the selective nature of the crackdown was clear in the nature of the asset declarations, a new legal requirement for every senior official. Opposition Sam Rainsy Party spokesman Yim Sovann said officials' families were not required to file declarations, making it easy to conceal ill-gotten gains, and that the declarations remained confidential. "We want asset declarations to be disclosed publicly, so everyone can know," he said. "The government has no political will to curb corruption at all. They do not want real change."

On April 1, Hun Sen declared his own personal assets, announcing publicly that he earned a personal salary of 4.6 million riels ($1,450) per month and that his other work costs were covered by the state. "My salary is enough for me to survive," said the premier, a multi-millionaire who owns a lavish mansion overlooking Phnom Penh's Independence Monument . Son Soubert described the publicity stunt as a "joke".

Government officials, meanwhile, have rejected any suggestion of rifts within the CPP. Phay Siphan said the claims were "baseless" and added that while there were challenges, the government was making strides towards "eradicating" corrupt activities. But Boden of Global Witness said he was not surprised by such allegations. His environmental watchdog organization, which has released a series of reports alleging high-level corruption in Cambodia's extractive resources sector, had "serious concerns" about the new anti-graft unit.

"In particular we are concerned about the undue executive control over the make up and functioning of the anti-corruption bodies in Cambodia," Boden said. "Whilst the Anti-Corruption Unit has brought forward some prosecutions against senior government officials we have not seen prosecutions taken against the numerous politicians and military elites named in our reports in association with corrupt practices in Cambodia ."

Sebastian Strangio is a journalist based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. He can be reached at sebastian.strangio@gmail.com.

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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