Cambodia’s graft-fighting body is launching a new initiative to eliminate bribes solicited by local commune councilors for performing public services.
The Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU) on Tuesday organized a nationwide workshop to promote the campaign, during which the body’s deputy director Chhay Savuth called on all stakeholders to join the fight.
“The ACU can’t work alone to combat illegal fees for public services. We must work together,” he said.
“In particular, I call on civil societies and political parties to work together.”
One of the first issues targeted by the ACU after its formation in 2010 was facilitation fees, or bribes paid to government officials for a public service such as road repairs or company registrations.
Chhay Savuth said that 22 ministries would be involved in the campaign to examine some 2,000 services provided at the commune level.
The Ministry of Finance will announce a scheduled fee for each type of public service, he said, adding that the ACU had already begun its examination into public services and that he expects to complete the work in three to four months.
Chhay Savuth also called on nongovernmental organizations, political parties, and associations which wish to fight bribery to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between May and October with the ACU to monitor bribery in a commune of their choice.
“The NGO and political party will need to employ their own human resources and budget to facilitate services for the people and monitor illegal fee paying within their commune,” he said.
The anti-corruption chief warned officials and other individuals involved in bribery that they face strict punishment and prison sentences under Cambodia’s Penal Code.
“The culture of bribery has been in place for over 20 years, and now we have to illuminate a bad culture and change it to a good culture, and we will take legal action against any government official who continues to take bribes,” he said.
Kol Preap, executive director of Transparency International Cambodia, called the campaign “a vital step” in the government’s efforts to fight corruption, adding that his organization would consider the request to work in tandem with the ACU.
“This is a gesture welcoming civil societies and political parties to participate and monitor that this initiative be effectively implemented,” he said.
“I encourage civil societies to participate in this new measure because bribery or accepting unofficial fees will negatively affect the daily lives of the people.”
Kol Preap said that the people also need to be educated that public services should not require “unofficial” fees.
“People become part of the problem when they proactively pay bribes without being asked,” he said. “This is one of the main issues—people don’t realize that exchanging an envelope for a service is part of corruption.”
Affiliated Network for Social Accountability in East Asia and the Pacific coordinator San Chey lauded the initiative as an opportunity for the public to fight back against official graft.
“This is a good start for people to participate in combating corruption,” he said.
San Chey also called on the ACU to monitor corruption in the police system at the commune level.
“Police on the ground level have charged their constituents fees for family books and residency certificates. They impose the fees arbitrarily,” he said.
The Phnom Penh Post quoted opposition lawmaker Mu Sochua of the Sam Rainsy Party as saying that the government has lagged behind in identifying commune-level corruption as an important issue.
“Corruption at the local level has been a huge problem for the poor for a long time,” she said, adding it is one of the core issues her party intends to tackle.
She expressed concern that the campaign might be an attempt by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party to bolster its image ahead of upcoming commune council elections in June.
“I am a bit afraid that this is about the [election] campaign and not addressing something that is rotten at the core,” she said.
In March 2010, Cambodia introduced an anti-graft law requiring government officials to declare their assets every two years.
If convicted of accepting bribes, government officials can now face up to 15 years in prison.
Governments and agencies around the world have frequently called on Prime Minister Hun Sen and the Cambodian leadership to tackle corruption more seriously.
Although the anti-graft law has been put into effect and an anti-corruption unit and council have been put in place, Cambodia is still one of the most corrupt countries in the world, according to anti-graft organization Transparency International.
Berlin-based Transparency International ranked Cambodia 164th worst out of 182 countries in its 2011 corruption perception index. International organizations question the value of the anti-graft law because of its lack of transparency.
Critics also argue that the new anti-corruption bodies will not be effective until they are no longer connected to the government.
Reported by Vichey Anan for RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.