News / Asia

    Cambodia Passes First Law to Combat Graft

    Son Chhay, a legislator with the opposition Sam Rainsy Party
    Son Chhay, a legislator with the opposition Sam Rainsy Party
    Robert Carmichael

    Cambodia's parliament has passed the country's first law to combat corruption, but critics say it is flawed, and could entrench rather than end corruption.

    After 15 years of trying, Cambodia now has a law against corruption, which is a scourge in this impoverished nation.

    Parliament passed the legislation on Thursday. Among other things, it imposes prison sentences of up to 15 years on officials convicted of taking bribes. It also requires politicians, military personnel, police officers, judges, and civil servants to disclose their wealth to a new anti-corruption body. Leaders of civic action groups also must report their wealth.

    The government calls the new law an important tool in fighting corruption.

    But many opposition politicians and civic activists are critical.

    Yong Kim Eng is from the Coalition for Integrity and Social Accountability, a collection of organizations fighting graft.

    He says that since those serving on the anti-corruption body will be appointed by the ruling party and will report to the prime minister, there is the risk of political interference.

    "Also we have questioned a lot about that as well - about independence, about what it will be accountable for. We want to have enough independence that this body can take action, can reduce the corruption in Cambodia," he said.

    Son Chhay, a legislator with the opposition Sam Rainsy Party, fears the law will be misused.

    "Because the prime minister and the deputy minister of the Council of Ministers will have full control over who can be prosecuted. The target will be the opposition and civil society, or the group of businesses who are not willing to support the government, who are critical of the government. So they will be able to find something there to prosecute them," he said.

    Critics complain the government ignored requests for the public to have a say in drafting the new law. Son Chhay says that among the changes the ruling party refused to consider was making financial disclosures public.

    A government spokesman responded to the criticism by saying that the opposition will have the opportunity to propose amendments in the future, as with any law.  

    Corruption is a serious problem here. Last year, the U.S. ambassador to Cambodia said that $500 million is lost to graft each year, a comment that angered Phnom Penh. And the international anti-corruption group Transparency International ranks Cambodia as one of the world's most corrupt countries.

    On Friday the U.S. Embassy welcomed the passage of the law and expressed hope that rules to implement it will "clarify and enhance" its aim of combating corruption in accordance with international standards.

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