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.
Cambodian government welcomed Sereyvuth's
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
is a journalist based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. He
can be reached at[email protected]
2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights
reserved. Please contact us about sales,