The Truth About Cambodia’s So-Called Corruption Crackdown

Recent Features

ASEAN Beat | Economy | Politics | Southeast Asia

The Truth About Cambodia’s So-Called Corruption Crackdown

Efforts to root out corruption in the country are likely to run once again into familiar realities.

Over the past few weeks, we have seen some indications of calls for greater focus on anti-corruption in Cambodia. While these indications may be notable, they obscure both the extent of the challenge and underestimate the degree to which they relate to issues of broader political power in the country.

Corruption in Cambodia and purported efforts to combat it are nothing new. Cambodia, after all, is ranked the most corrupt country in Southeast Asia, a region not known for untainted officials, and is just as corrupt as the Democratic Republic of Congo and Haiti. Transparency International rates it 161st out of 180 countries. It is also one of the world’s worst countries for money laundering, as the Basel Anti-Money Laundering Index regularly finds. Despite multiple efforts to crack down on corruption, it remains widespread in Cambodia today and is tied to the way its politics is conducted, including by the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and Prime Minister Hun Sen himself.

But over the past few weeks, the issue has been in the spotlight again. Of particular note have been comments from Cambodia state-linked outlets talking about anti-corruption as an agenda item of Hun Sen. That has come amid other developments, including comments by Hun Manet, Hun Sen’s oldest son and deputy commander in chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces at a ceremony to appoint a new provincial military commander, and reports tying anti-corruption to other issues such as tax revenue collection.

All this might seem to suggest that a new corruption crackdown is underway in full force in Cambodia. The editorial from Khmer Times, published on August 26, observes that, “with the country facing headwinds of possible loss of EBA [everything-but-arms] status with the EU and the fallout from the US-led trade war and associated slowing down of the global economy, the reforms undertaken by Prime Minister Hun Sen has now taken on an added fervor and urgency and the masses love it.” Dwelling on the importance of anti-corruption, the article notes that “if [Hun Sen] succeeds in building a clean and green party and government systems…his legacy will be registered in a golden book. Cambodia’s future relies on the results of reforms, especially in fighting against corruption and building a strong institution and resilient, inclusive society.” And in noting the rationale for the government’s anti-corruption crackdown, it also observes that “[Hun Sen] understands that corruption and weak institutions are the key threats to political stability.”

There are good reasons why the Cambodian government may want to portray that such a campaign is in the works now. From the perspective of domestic politics, following a landslide election victory in 2018, Hun Sen and the CPP may be looking to consolidate power further, including through another round of purges of so-called bad apples, which include key opponents. And with respect to the country’s broader economic situation, the government may sense that it needs to show the people that it is making inroads in some aspects of economic reform to insulate the government should the economic situation worsen in the coming months and years.

But the developments of the past week and the state-backed rhetoric related to it conceal broader realities at play with respect to corruption in Cambodia. For one, since corruption is deeply embedded in Cambodia’s political dynamics, state-directed efforts to get rid of a few bad apples with arrests or fines, as has been proposed or outlined before, cannot address systemic problems related to the personalized and party-centric networks of Hun Sen. It is worth remembering that Hun Sen’s sons control the military and the youth wing, his wife runs one of the country’s largest charities – so handouts are seen as coming from the ruling party – and his daughters control the media and businesses. The party’s tentacles also extend further through its ties with business tycoons as well as loyalists in other bureaucratic institutions.

For another, while the Khmer Times is right to note that corruption and weak institutions are threats to the country’s overall political stability, the reality is that they are strengths when it comes to Hun Sen’s own political stability. Corruption and weak institutions both allow the CPP and Hun Sen to thrive via their own power and also provide periodic openings for them to claim that they need even more authority to tackle those very challenges, when such efforts are in fact directed at weeding out opponents. The objective is to eventually concentrate even greater power in the hands of individuals and the party rather than the state and institutions.

To be sure, this is not to say that one should dismiss all comments coming from the government and state-linked institutions about corruption. These comments sometimes reveal differences of views among actors and can contain a sliver of self-criticism. But the point is that they do not change the broader realities in Cambodia that would make any seemingly revolutionary corruption crackdown seem more like a periodic purge.