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Amid Progress, Corruption Reigns

October 01, 2000|Peter Eng | Peter Eng, a former Associated Press correspondent, has reported on Cambodia since the mid-1980s

PHNOM PENH — With its main rivals cooperating, Cambodia has enjoyed political stability since the 1998 elections. Gone is the street fighting and bombast between the parties of Prime Minister Hun Sen and Prince Norodom Ranariddh, now the National Assembly president. That is a major victory in a land almost continuously riven by war and civil conflict since 1970.

But human-rights activists say this is the time for the international community not to step back, but rather to apply pressure on Phnom Penh to undertake major reforms instead of merely promising them. As the cloud of political infighting has lifted, the extent to which injustice and abuse dominates this country has become clearer than ever.

A few good things are happening in Cambodia. The government is slowly reforming itself. Civil-society groups are gaining strength, and some dedicated civil servants are emerging. But these trends may bear fruit only later.

Corruption is so institutionalized that people pay bribes to get jobs that give them opportunities to demand bribes. Recently, a pregnant woman died because, according to her husband, she could not afford to pay the fee and bribe a doctor at a public hospital in Phnom Penh demanded for the emergency caesarean she needed.

That episode dramatized the growing gap between rich and poor, and between Phnom Penh and the rest of the country. More than one-third of Cambodians still live below the poverty line, 90% of them in the countryside, according to the World Bank. While spending on defenseand security is eating up 40% of the national budget during peacetime, spending on health and education has declined. This despite more than $3 billion in foreign aid since 1991 to a country of only 11 million people and several years of economic boom in the 1990s.

Everyone has said for years that impunity for the politically powerful, armed and wealthy is Cambodia's core cancer, But the United States and other countries did not want to press Phnom Penh too hard on this because they feared it would trigger "political instability." As long as Cambodia was "stable," abuses were of secondary importance. So, little has changed. The police and the courts are still corrupt and remain pawns of higher-ups.

The problem starts at the top, as two attacks last year showed. A popular actress who was allegedly Hun Sen's mistress was shot dead; her relatives say Hun Sen's wife ordered the killing. No one has been arrested. In the other attack, witnesses said the wife of Hun Sen's close aide Svay Sitha participated in an acid attack that severely disfigured his teenage mistress. Police have made no attempt to carry out a warrant for her arrest.

Nor has anyone been punished for numerous politically motivated killings blamed on Hun Sen's thugs in recent years. The number of political killings had decreased since the election but are increasing again as the country prepares for national elections of leaders of communes, the smallest local-government body.

Then there are the uncountable daily abuses across Cambodia, where soldiers and local officials seize land from peasants and sell it to developers, abduct their daughters to staff brothels and harness their sons for slave labor. A quarter of the prison inmates interviewed by the Cambodian human-rights group Licadho said they had been intimidated, threatened or tortured by police. But, Licadho said in a June report, there has been only a handful of torture-related prosecutions in recent years and apparently only one conviction and prison sentence: a military policeman who spent four months in jail for beating a teenager who died in custody.

If the situation continues, there may be an uprising in 10 to 20 years, said one senior Cambodian analyst. Quasi-uprisings already are occurring. Since the 1998 elections, in a country where public demonstrations are rare because of its authoritarianism, thousands of Cambodians have taken to the streets to protest economic inequality and government policies. They have included teachers, students, landless farmers, textile workers, motorbike taxi drivers and political activists.

Lynch mobs also have been active in the past year. People who have lost all trust in the police and courts increasingly are meting out "justice" themselves, killing thieves and other suspected criminals on the streets. One lynching took place inside a Buddhist temple compound, where the monks, the supposed guardians of Cambodian morality, made no attempt to intervene. Last month, hundreds of people seized an alleged rapist from police custody in the northwestern province of Battambang, castrated him and then beat him to death with sticks and rocks.

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