In what looks like a race to the bottom, North Korea is ranked as the most corrupt country in Asia with the closed communist nation receiving one of the worst scores in Transparency International’s 2016 corruption index.
With a corruption score of 12, North Korea ranked 174 in the survey by the Berlin-based organization. The country was beaten out for the most corrupt nation in the index only by South Sudan and Somalia. In 2015 North Korea tied with Somalia with a corruption index of eight.
Transparency International (TI) attributed poor performance in the index to unaccountable governments that lack oversight, along with insecure and shrinking space for civil society organizations that pushes anti-corruption action to the margins in those countries.
High-profile corruption scandals, in addition to everyday corruption issues, continue to undermine public trust in government, the benefits of democracy, and the rule of law, the organization said.
“In countries with populist or autocratic leaders, we often see democracies in decline and a disturbing pattern of attempts to crack down on civil society, limit press freedom and weaken the independence of the judiciary,” explained TI Chair Jose Ugaz.
Ugaz’s description appears to apply to Cambodia, which ranked 156 with a corruption score of 21, the same corruption score the country had in 2015.
In Cambodia judicial independence is lacking, and Prime Minister Hun Sen, his family, and close associates control vast amounts of the country’s wealth.
The London-based nongovernmental agency Global Witness in its 2016 report “Hostile Takeover” detailed how Hun Sen’s family dominates the most important businesses in Cambodia where they can operate outside the law thanks to the protection of Asia’s longest-serving premier, his relatives, and associates who hold top military and government posts.
Opposition leaders and outside observers, including the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, have criticized the Cambodian judicial system’s lack of independence.
Rarely do politicians of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) face charges, but the list of opposition lawmakers dragged before the courts is long and includes Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha, as well as other opposition lawmakers like Um Sam An and Meach Sovannara, the CNRP's media director.
Laos and Myanmar show improvement
Laos and Myanmar continued to improve their scores in 2016, as leaders in both countries have put an emphasis on fighting corruption.
But while the National League for Democracy’s (NLD) government headed by Aung San Suu Kyi has proposed action to reduce corruption, progress there has been overshadowed by the deadly violence in the Rahkine State. According to TI the fighting highlights a lack of oversight of Myanmar’s military, which allows abuses to take place.
Myanmar received a corruption score of only 28 with a country ranking of 136. Myanmar's corruption score was 22 in 2015.
In Laos, Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith has made fighting corruption a key policy of his administration, but Laos still scored poorly ranking 123.
Laos's corruption score of 30 showed some improvement, however, as the country’s score in 2015 was 25.
Vietnam ranked 113 in 2016, with the country’s corruption score of 33 showing a little improvement over the 31 it scored in 2015.
Vietnam has been rocked by a series of crackdowns on public protests and free speech as the country jailed activists and bloggers in 2016 as it tried to reign in dissent.
Hanoi has shown little with patience with demonstrators protesting the chemical spill from the Formosa steel plant that devastated the country’s central coast. Authorities have also thrown bloggers who have dared to challenge the government in jail and have continued their repression of Catholics in the country.
China’s ‘best’ ranking still low
China ranked as the least corrupt country in the region with a country rank of 79 and a corruption score of 40.
While the region’s largest and most powerful nation ranks the highest in the index, it’s still at the low end of the range. In 2015, China’s corruption score was 37.
In Transparency International’s index a score of zero means a country is perceived as highly corrupt, while a score of 100 means the country is perceived to be very clean.
Based on expert opinions of public sector corruption, the annual report rated Denmark and New Zealand as the least-corrupt countries, followed by Finland, Sweden, Switzerland, and Norway.
With a score of 74, The United States placed 18th, down from 16th with a score of 76 in 2015.
Denmark and New Zealand both had scores of 90, closely followed by Finland (89) and Sweden (88). Although no country is free of corruption, the countries at the top share characteristics of open government, press freedom, civil liberties and independent judicial systems.
“In too many countries, people are deprived of their most basic needs and go to bed hungry every night because of corruption, while the powerful and corrupt enjoy lavish lifestyles with impunity,” said TI Chair Ugaz.