This month’s collapse of another building under construction in Cambodia, killing 36 people including six children, underscored the government’s failure to prevent the endemic mismanagement and corruption that causes such tragedies.
While economists recognize that a certain amount of corruption helped to grease the wheels of the nation’s recent fast economic growth, it has now arguably become so pervasive that it represents an existential risk to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s de facto one-party state.
Last month, the US Treasury Department sanctioned two Cambodian businessmen suspected of corruption and illegal logging, accusations the Foreign Ministry said were based on groundless accusations, a source of “strong dismay” and an “ambush” on attempts to “restore trust and confidence” between the two nations.
The US move acted to freeze the US-based assets of Try Pheap and 11 of his companies involved in a wide range of businesses. It also banned US companies from doing business with his firms, the Treasury Department announcement said.
Such international criticism isn’t new. Over the last decade Cambodia has tumbled down international rankings on rule of law and corruption, ranking near the bottom of various annually compiled tables.
The World Justice Project, a Washington-based non-profit, ranked Cambodia second from the bottom on its rule of law ranking last year, just ahead of Venezuela but below the Democratic Republic of Congo. Transparency International, a global corruption watchdog, ranked Cambodia 161st out of 180 countries in its Corruption Perceptions Index.
Much of the blame rests with the government’s Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU), a government body established in 2010 by the Council of Ministers ostensibly to tackle endemic corruption. But over the past decade its successes have been few and far between.
Since its founding, the ACU has been headed by Om Yentieng, a former advisor to Hun Sen who later this year will mark a full decade in the job.
“Has it been a decade? How time flies! Well, he did what they all thought he would, which is absolutely diddly squat,” said Sophal Ear, associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College at Los Angeles.
Corruption, naturally, is a far bigger problem than just Om Yentieng himself. The ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) now has a chokehold on politics as the head of a de-facto one-party state, a position it achieved after dissolving its main opposition rival and winning all 125 seats in parliament at what was widely viewed as a rigged general election in 2018.
Cambodia’s corruption problem is deep-rooted. Wayward civil servants are rewarded for party loyalty, not competence. Bent tycoons are often protected by elite politicians. Judges are often CPP members and often rule on party lines. The free media has been slowly extirpated since 2016.
Moreover, Cambodia’s remarkable economic growth since the 1990s has been driven largely by a lack of regulation, low taxation and the widespread acceptance that rules can be broken if it brings development.
While tackling endemic corruption is difficult anywhere, in Cambodia it will require the sort of institutional reform that is nearly impossible in an unchecked one-party state.
Om Yentieng, analysts and critics say, is more of a hindrance than help. When the US House of Representatives passed the Cambodia Democracy Act in 2018, the then-chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Ed Royce, named him as one of 17 Cambodian officials US Donald Trump should individually sanction.
Insiders say that Om Yentieng has almost no real power and is too timid to perform his anti-corruption task with muscle or vigor. In 2016, he was forced by Interior Minister Sar Kheng to publicly plead for forgiveness after suggesting what everyone in Cambodia knows: that some traffic police are corrupt.
Om Yentieng was formerly a special adviser to Hun Sen and headed the Cambodian Human Rights Committee, a government-run and largely ineffective organization. He also presided over the National Anti-Corruption Committee, the ACU’s forerunner, which also achieved very little during the 2000s.
Back in 2010, Ou Virak, then-president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, told the Phnom Penh Post newspaper that Om Yentieng was a poor choice to head the new ACU.
“This appointment was an opportunity to send a signal of something new…This was an opportunity for [the government] to make a statement, and I think they’ve missed the opportunity,” he stated at the time.
The London-based environmental watchdog Global Witness alleged in 2009 that Om Yentieng was secretly awarded mining concessions and was connected to the Float Asia Friendly Mation Company, which stood accused of extracting marble from protected forest areas. He firmly denied the allegations.
At the same time, Om Yentieng’s long hold over the ACU does not surprise critical analysts.
“I think he must go way back to the days of sharing cigarettes because it’s clear the standard isn’t how many corrupt officials have you caught today, this week, this month, this year, this decade? It’s how good of a loyal party apparatchik are you? And Om Yentieng has been a very good one,” said Sophal Ear.
Indeed, he has been a permanent member of the CPP’s Central Committee since the 2000s and the ACU is still managed by the Council of Ministers, Hun Sen’s cabinet.
When Om Yentieng appointed two of his sons as ACU assistants in 2016, a government spokesman defended the nepotistic appointments by stating: “The CPP must appoint the youth of the CPP because we cannot appoint the youth of another party.”
“There is a need to replace not just Om Yentieng but a boatload of people at the top. The problem is that it’s got to be more than just replacing Om Yentieng. You have to also empower that person, make them independent, allow them the freedom to make decisions,” Sophal Ear added.
Instead, Om Yentieng’s position is more secure than ever as Hun Sen has promised bold anti-corruption measures since last year.
To be sure, some cosmetic changes have been made. Patronage in the military has been reduced, while the government also plans new laws on taxation and regulation of sectors susceptible to corruption, including casino gambling.
But as was made clear in a report last year by the U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre, an international research group, a superficial anti-corruption campaign actually serves the CPP’s interests.
Applied publicly and sparingly, critics say, presents the image that the government is doing something about graft, in a bid to assuage a public growing increasingly angry at growing wealth inequality and political favoritism.
Yet it also allows the party elite to riffle out any potential rivals, as seen in similar campaigns in China and neighboring Vietnam.
The anti-corruption body, in 2011, arrested the former chief of the Bodyguard Unit of Chea Sim, the late president of the CPP and a factional rival to Hun Sen. In 2016, it prosecuted five NGO staff members over a trial involving opposition leader Kem Sokha.
As Hun Sen prepares to consolidate his authority and begin a dynastic hand over of power to one of his sons, an act of dynastic succession that more often than not fails across the world, keeping a loyalist like Om Yentieng as the ACU’s head makes more political sense than ever.