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Mixed reaction to graft inquiries

Moek Dara, secretary general of the National Authority for Combating Drugs, as seen in this file photo from 2008. Photo by: Khem Sovannara
WHEN the Kingdom’s anticorruption law
finally passed last March after years in the making, its reception
varied predictably across the political spectrum.

Ruling party
officials hailed the legislation, with Deputy Prime Minister Sok An
calling it “an effective tool to fulfill a serious duty for government
and society”. Others lamented the lack of public consultation on the
law and worried about the independence of the newly created
Anticorruption Unit.

“We are very disappointed, and I think that
this anticorruption law will become a law defending corruption,” Sam
Rainsy Party spokesman Yim Sovann said at the time.

In a
statement released in October, the international watchdog group Global
Witness said there were “serious flaws” in the government’s anti-graft
strategy, claiming the new legislation “will not stop high-level
offenders”.

Ten months on from the anticorruption law’s passage,
however, the government has shown a willingness to target senior
officials. This week, the ACU announced two of its highest-profile
probes yet, with the arrest of Banteay Meanchey provincial police chief
Hun Hean and detention of Moek Dara, secretary general of the National
Authority for Combating Drugs.

Yet even with such prominent
targets in the ACU’s crosshairs, observers are divided on whether the
government’s effort is a genuine attempt to combat graft or a simply
ploy to further concentrate power in the hands of Prime Minister Hun
Sen.

“It can be a smokescreen for a kind of internal fighting,”
said Son Soubert, a political observer and former member of the
Constitutional Council.

He pointed to 2009, when
then-Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces Ke Kim Yan
was pushed out of his post in what was seen by many as a strike by Hun
Sen against the faction of Senate President Chea Sim and Interior
Minister Sar Kheng. The moves against Moek Dara, who serves under Ke
Kim Yan with the latter’s new posting as head of the NACD, and Hun
Hean, a police chief in a region that has traditionally been associated
with the Chea Sim faction, may represent further partisan maneuvering,
Son Soubert said.

“It’s the logic of this kind of regime that
one of the clans has to overcome the other one,” Son Soubert said. “The
rumours of internal in-fighting may be true.”

SRP lawmaker Son
Chhay was unwilling to speculate on the government’s motives in the two
cases, but said the ACU’s efforts were assuredly not indiscriminate.

“The
anticorruption body is not independent; everybody knows that, so the
action that takes place has to be selective,” he said. “The prime
minister makes the final decision on that.”

Son Chhay allowed
that the probes announced this week could spook some crooked officials
into falling in line in the short term, but he said that ultimately,
the Kingdom’s entrenched networks of patronage would ensure immunity
for the well-connected.

“Until people respect the law and don’t
worry so much about powerful people, things will not change in terms of
corruption, in terms of illegal activity in Cambodia,” he said. “The
message of using one or two people to scare the rest is not going to
work.”

Others say the ACU’s latest investigations show it is gaining momentum for a sustained anti-graft push.

Council
of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan called the government’s efforts “a
new chapter in Cambodian history”, saying this week’s cases were the
consequence of systemic reform.

“This year, 2011, the government
wants to address all activity related to corruption. We have a law, we
have a unit to implement the law, so it’s a message to tell everyone to
[stop] corrupt activity,” he said.

Phay Siphan noted that
roughly 100,000 government officials are expected to take part in an
asset declaration process over the next two months, though the
disclosures will not be public. In November, the ACU arrested Pursat
provincial prosecutor Top Chan Sereyvuth on corruption charges, while
in December, it released a report naming 30 low-level tax officials
that had allegedly overcharged motorists during road tax collection.

Last
January, Hun Sen announced what he said was a crackdown on officials
involved in illegal logging. The effort was subsequently trumpeted by
subordinates and provincial officials, but one year on, no prominent
members of government have been prosecuted.

Son Chhay said the
largely cosmetic logging crackdown was not a promising precedent,
though he added that the premier’s past rhetoric indicates that he may
take drug-related cases, in which Moek Dara and Hun Hean are reportedly
involved, “more seriously”.

“We welcome that, but we’re hoping
that these actions will be firm and will look seriously at any
particular abuse of power,” Son Chhay said.

Cambodian Centre for
Human Rights president Ou Virak said yesterday that for the moment, it
was still “too early to tell” what the implications of the government’s
recent efforts would be.

“With an arrest, we’ll have to assume
that they’re all still innocent until a court proves them guilty,” he
said. “It looks to be a positive step, but I think certainly a first
step. Certainly, we’ll have to have more steps to come.”

Phnom Penh Post

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY THET SAMBATH AND SAM RITH

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Categories: Local News
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