Why Cambodia’s Government Cannot Win Its Fight Against Corruption

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Why Cambodia’s Government Cannot Win Its Fight Against Corruption

As demonstrated by the scourge of hit-and-run violence on the nation’s roads, the political system rests on the idea that some people are more equal than others.

Why Cambodia’s Government Cannot Win Its Fight Against Corruption

A tuk-tuk drives past the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Credit: Depositphotos

One of this columnist’s earliest experiences of Cambodia, perhaps a week or so after he arrived, was of a mob. Hitching a ride with a motodop, we pulled up near what at first seemed a standard traffic accident, the kind that becomes routine when you live in Phnom Penh for some time. From a safe distance, which my driver insisted on, I could see an injured man lying on the pavement, I think some blood flowing from him, and perhaps 20 people surrounding him.

At first, I thought this might have been the injured motorcyclist. A skeletal Honda lay sideways in the road. Instead, I learned, after my driver made a quick inquiry, that the prostrate man was actually the driver of the SUV that had collided with the motorcyclist, who seemed to have disappeared somewhere. The driver had been stopped by the mob after trying to flee the scene, bundled out of the vehicle, and then beaten. And then the beating started again. Punches from the crowd rained down. Not many, but enough for the scene to become menacing. I recall a pot-bellied man pacing across the street in order to land a kick. Then the police arrived, the crowd dispersed and my driver insisted we move on.

To read the dailies in Phnom Penh, when you still had the pleasure of competing prints on the ramshackle newsstands, would be to make oneself an expert on road accidents. At last count, there were 1,548 traffic accidents in the first six months of 2023, resulting in 756 deaths and 2,072 injuries. I saw two myself. The noise and sight of one of them will never leave me; the car screeching off and the post-crash stillness, a silence of stares directed at the unmoving body. Both cases were hit-and-runs. Quite obviously, those who drive cars, especially SUVs, have money, and those who drive motorcycles have less money. And in Cambodia, there’s an expectation you can pay your way out of trouble. Cash to the victim’s family and cash to the authorities should do it.

Quite a few hit-and-runs must occur because the drivers simply don’t care about the person they have struck down or they think they can show up at the victim’s funeral and pay off the family not to press charges or they are too drunk or drugged to realize that they’ve crashed into someone – or some combination of all three. However, and I have no way of knowing how many cases this applies to, some hit-and-runs take place because the driver is so fearful for their own life that they drive off. Why? Because many ordinary people think that the police won’t even bother investigating the crime and the courts won’t prosecute the accused – because the wealthy perpetrator will pay off the authorities – they take justice into their own hands, snatching the driver from the car and delivering a beating or worse.

As one commentator told me when I reported on a hit-and-run case in 2019, “If they do not [drive away], they will be beaten by the public… The public does not believe in the justice system, so they seek justice by punishing offenders by themselves.” As a result, as I reported, the Institute for Road Safety, a non-profit organization, suggested back in 2016 (and there’s little reason to think the problem has improved since) that one in every four car crashes in Cambodia is a hit-and-run and almost half of them result in fatalities.

What you have, then, is a vicious circle, all caused by the fact that the public doesn’t trust the police and the judicial system and believes (quite correctly) that the entire system has been rotted by corruption. Because the public doesn’t think justice will be served through legal means, they take it into their own hands to enact “rough justice.” But drivers know this, so are more likely to flee the scene of a traffic accident out of fear. And as more drivers flee, the more likely it is that the victim won’t receive immediate treatment and, thus, is more likely to die, all of which reinforces the public’s distrust in the authorities.

With this in mind, read the Radio Free Asia article “Lawyer’s son in deadly hit-and-run now in prison” published on December 27. The backstory is that on December 14, the son of a prominent lawyer knocked down and killed a motorcyclist, who happened to be a gold medal-winning badminton player. The driver fled the scene but later turned himself in – but only after a public outcry. As well as the obvious reason, the public was also incensed after the victim’s wife alleged on social media that the perpetrator’s father attended the funeral and offered the family $1,000 if they agreed not to pursue criminal charges.

Reportedly, Justice Minister Keut Rith then intervened to instruct prosecutors to “investigate and resolve the matter properly and strictly.” And on December 21, so seven days after the incident, Prime Minister Hun Manet publicly called on traffic police officers to immediately arrest reckless drivers who caused deadly accidents. It wasn’t reported, but one imagines that some influential people spoke to the perpetrator’s father and told him to make sure his son turned himself in to the police. Which he did.

All of this is, of course, a tragedy. Two young lives have been destroyed, if indeed the perpetrator has a conscience. But what’s also so tragic for the nation is the speech that Hun Manet gave. Radio Free Asia reported that he “instructed traffic police officers to immediately arrest reckless drivers who caused deadly accidents” and said that officers “don’t need to wait for instructions from top-ranking officers,” before quoting him directly:

I will take action against those who punish police officers for their work…What will happen to our society if police officers enforce the law and they later receive punishment from [powerful] individuals? Our law must be enforced if there is enough proof of drunk driving or hit-and-run.

I don’t know whether the translator made this a rhetorical question, but Hun Manet needn’t ponder what would happen in that scenario. It already exists. And, indeed, this isn’t the first hit-and-run scandal. Hun Manet’s father, Hun Sen, who handed over the prime ministership in August after almost four decades in the job, also had to intervene in the past to make sure wealthy drivers turned themselves in to the police.

One recalls an incident in 2019 in which a 16-year-old girl tragically killed a motorcyclist, a crime that Hun Sen called “amoral” and, again, the parents had to force their child to hand themselves in. One can think of many other similar scandals. And Hun Manet must remember these. Everyone in Cambodia knows the routine. No police action leads to a public outcry followed by the Prime Minister’s intervention and, only after that, an arrest.  The story repeats itself, regardless of the prime minister.

The Phnom Penh Post quoted a seemingly different part of the PM’s speech:

If a suspect is caught red-handed committing a crime, like causing a death in a traffic accident, there is no need to ask for permission from your superiors – just arrest the suspect. If the suspects refuse to comply, go ahead and handcuff them. Arrest them even if they are the children of senior officials. There is no need to worry about any intervention. I, the prime minister, have your back. 

It’s striking that Hun Manet thinks he needs to remind the police that they should arrest someone who kills another person and that they must be reminded to do their job without instruction. If one sentence sums up the rot of corruption in Cambodia it is this: “Arrest them even if they are the children of senior officials.” One must conclude that Hun Manet thinks this isn’t obvious to, nor indeed followed by, most traffic police. Otherwise, he would see no reason to insist upon it.

The tragedy of all of this is that things won’t get better. Police are paid terribly and have no motivation to do their jobs, one reason why so many people drive drunk, why driving licenses aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on, and why an unskilled motorcyclist has to quickly learn the Hobbesian rules of Cambodian roads, which is basically to get out of the way of anything that’s bigger than you because it won’t stop. Most traffic cops survive on bribes.

Above this low-rung of law enforcement is an even fatter layer of corruption, including many people who have bought their positions. And the further up you go, all the way to the top, the more corrupt it becomes. The money flowing around Cambodia, especially from illegal activities, like the scam compounds, which may be producing as much money as Cambodia’s entire GDP, means that no amount of willpower will make even a dent in the problem.

Hun Manet isn’t going to stop it; he was bred and raised in this system. The victims are obvious, and they’ll be the same victims year after year. Indeed, when talking about corruption one can easily fall into the realm of abstraction, as if systemic corruption is a few greased palms over dodgy business deals and scores on international rankings. But hit-and-runs are the grim reality. Put a few more visiting dignitaries on the back of a motodop at night, drive up and down Monivong Boulevard a few times, and maybe then they’ll take corruption a little more seriously.

Pech Pisey of Transparency International Cambodia last year described corruption as being “like a cancer.” Alas, he had it the wrong way around. Corruption is Cambodia’s body politic, which has now successfully cut away from itself the tumor of anti-corruption. For the ruling party, civil society, the free press, and oppositional politics were the cancer. It puts one in the mind of Dambreuse, the banker from Flaubert’s “L’Éducation sentimentale,” who was said to be so corrupted he would have happily paid to sell himself and his friends.