Cambodian nongovernmental groups have welcomed the first arrest of a high-profile official on alleged bribery charges by the country’s new anti-corruption task force, but warn that "big fish" should not be spared in the drive to root out graft in one of the world’s most crooked governments.
Om Yin Tieng, the head of the Anti-Corruption Unit, this week announced the Nov. 29 arrest of Top Chansereyvuth, the head prosecutor of Cambodia’s western Pursat province, on charges of accepting U.S. $8,000 in bribes from illegal loggers.
Top Chansereyvuth was also accused of extortion and illegal detention, along with his bodyguards Khun Sokna and Yu. A third accomplice, El Vanak, eluded authorities.
At the Dec. 1 press briefing, Om Yin Tieng vowed that his unit would continue to crack down on corruption in the country according to a new law enacted in March.
Mam Sitha, president of the Cambodian Independent Anti-Corruption Committee, a nongovernmental group, said the arrest is a strong sign that the government plans to take action on graft.
“This action should be effective in the long term,” she added.
Am Sam Arth, an investigator with the local human rights organization LICADHO, called the arrest “a good start” that will lead to increased public confidence in the unit.
He added that the arrest also sends a message to other court officials across the country that corruption will not be tolerated.
“Court officials cannot just act arbitrarily without punishment. The Anti-Corruption Unit should investigate all officials, regardless of their seniority in the government, in order to provide fair treatment for all,” he said.
'Sending a message'
Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of local rights group Cambodian Defenders Project, also approved of the Anti-Corruption Unit’s action.
“We applaud the unit’s move, but not because of the arrest. We applaud the first implementation of the Anti-Corruption Law,” under which officials could be jailed for up to 15 years if convicted of accepting bribes, he said.
Most of the Cambodian public also hailed the move, saying the arrest will show corrupt officials that they cannot expect impunity.
Soeng Sen Karuna, 32, a resident of Pursat, said that when Top Chansereyvuth was brought to trial, villagers gathered at the court and welcomed the news that the prosecutor had been brought to justice.
He added that the task force should allow people who were abused by the prosecutor during his time at the Pursat provincial court to file complaints against him.
“The arrest will send a strong message to those corrupt officials. They will be afraid to take bribes or they will feel anxious about trying to do it,” he said.
In March, Cambodia’s parliament approved an anti-corruption law that created an anti-corruption council and an anti-corruption unit to oversee investigations.
The council recently adopted a five-year plan to take on corruption that will require more than 100,000 state officials to declare their assets.
But critics argued that the new bodies would not be effective, as they do not operate independently from the government and those overseeing them have poor track records.
Om Yen Tieng, nominated by Prime Minister Hun Sen as the head of the task force in June, was previously the president of the Cambodian Human Rights Committee.
At the time of his appointment to the head of the Anti-Corruption Unit, Yim Sovann, a spokesperson for the opposition Sam Rainsy Party, said “corruption will not decline" under Om Yin Tieng's watch.
Global Witness, an NGO that monitors government oversight, warned countries that provide aid to Cambodia that they should “not be fooled” by Cambodia’s anti-corruption initiative.
"This does not represent a break from the well-documented and entrenched patterns of corruption at the highest levels of Cambodia's government, and it should not be welcomed as such."
Anti-graft organization Transparency International ranked Cambodia 154th worst out of 178 countries in its most recent corruption perception index.
Political and Economic Risk Consultancy also ranked Cambodia second-most corrupt in Southeast Asia after Indonesia earlier this year.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who spent three days in Cambodia at the end of October, called on Prime Minister Hun Sen to do more to make the country’s corruption law a more effective tool in preventing the abuse of power.
Reported by Kim Peou for RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Sarada Taing and Yun Samean. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.