Cambodia’s corruption is so pervasive, even slam-dunk cases get buried

Cambodian Yon Samm  has contracted malaria six times in the past seven years.
Cambodian Yon Samm has contracted malaria six times in the past seven years.
Image: AP Photo/David Longstreath
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

When the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria unveiled a detailed 88-page report in November exposing how Cambodian government officials solicited nearly half a million dollars in bribes, a spokesman for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party vowed that justice would be served.

“It is very essential to do an investigation and send the case to court,” Cheam Yeap told the Cambodia Daily. “It doesn’t matter whether or not the alleged corrupt officials remain in position or resign…. They must face prosecution for committing corruption.”

A few months later, “very essential” became purely optional, as the government’s anti-corruption unit decided not to file any charges against former National Malaria Center director Duong Socheat, who has since retired, and his unnamed deputy.

“We recognize this case, but we don’t have enough evidence for the accusations,” Om Yentieng, head of the government’s anti-corruption unit, told reporters this week, according once again to the Cambodia Daily. “Our reputation will be damaged and the Global Fund’s too. … the government would also be criticized, then how could the people trust the government anymore?”

The Global Fund, set up with the help of donors like Bill Gates, accused three top Cambodian health officials of taking $410,000 in bribes from two anti-malarial mosquito-net manufacturers, Switzerland’s Vestergaard Frandsen and Sumitomo Chemical Singapore.

Covering up $410,000 in bribes may barely register on the outrage scale, especially as Cambodia’s longtime strongman prime minister, Hun Sen, is facing a genocide complaint filed with the International Criminal Court this week. But it’s emblematic of what ails the Cambodian economy.

The International Labor Organization estimated this month that corruption drains off about 10% of the country’s GDP, or $1.7 billion a year, and Cambodia ranked a lowly 160 of 177 countries in Transparency International’s 2013 rankings of corruption perceptions.

The country’s economy has expanded at a rapid pace in recent years, attracting manufacturing businesses that have fled higher labor costs in countries like China. But critics fear that pulling Cambodians out of poverty will be difficult while corruption remains so widespread. “Business people, both local and foreign, have identified corruption, particularly within the judiciary, as the single greatest deterrent to investment in Cambodia,” the US state department concluded last year.

The Global Fund, which has spent $331 million in Cambodia over the last decade, declined to comment on the anti-corruption unit’s decision. “We are working with Cambodia’s government to get repayment on funds identified as misused,” a spokesman told Quartz. “While we do not currently plan to cut or reduce funding to Cambodia because of that process, we may need to make adjustments as we evaluate future grants.”