Although Cambodia is well known
around the world for the Hindu
and Buddhist temple complex of Angor Wat in Siem Reap, a
landmark that is even proudly displayed on the nation’s flag,
the country is also becoming recognized today for a widespread
practice for which it does not want to be associated—corruption.
(Photo by http://www.jeanshortsandbaggedmilk.com)
As I begin to write an article about corruption, I’m
reminded, first of all, of a minor corruption case.
One time a Grade Four student in a public school in Phnom Penh by the
name of Krin Vilor told me he was very afraid of going to school to
study because, when he goes to school, he has to pay 2,000 riel (US$.50)
each day to his teacher. If he doesn’t have the money to pay his
teacher, he will be chased out of the class.
“Why does your teacher ask for this money?” I asked him.
“I don’t know,” he replied.
He added that he now faces being forced to study for an extra class as
the teacher told all of the students that they had to do so. If he
doesn’t go to the extra class, he said, the teacher might fail him when
he takes an exam, or he can’t get a good score. He also explained that
he has to pay more money for this extra class. Many students, he said,
give more money to the teacher whenever it’s time to take an examination
because they want to pass the test and get a higher score.
He shared with me that he feels so much suffering and disappointment
because he is from a poor family. His mother can’t afford to give him
more money to pay his teacher, he said, and sometimes he has to skip the
class and can’t go to school regularly because he is afraid that the
teacher will force him to pay money.
I also have spent some time with his mother and asked her the same
question I asked her son: “Why does the teacher ask for money?”
Like her son, she too said she doesn’t know. She just thinks it’s the
rule of the school.
But it’s not the rule of the school. No, it’s the idea of the teacher,
but why is the teacher, who has the important task of teaching and
nurturing the future generation of Cambodia, demanding money from his
I discovered that it’s because the salaries of teachers are very low.
They can’t support their families on the salary they receive. That’s why
they engage in such unscrupulous behavior and become so dishonest.
What does this story tell us about corruption in Cambodia?
Based on what people say, it is believed in Cambodia that teachers are a
second parent to children, that teachers are great mentors nurturing
their students to become good citizens, to become the new generation of
future leaders of the country.
However, as indicated by the story above, the opposite is the true
reality: teachers educate their students to be corrupt through their
words and deeds. It begins with students using money to buy a good score
in order to pass an examination, which is evident in classrooms from
primary school to high school to university.
In high school, there are cases of corruption that I experienced myself.
At the end of Grade 12, for instance, all students have to take a final
examination that they must pass to get a degree that allows them to
continue studying at a university. Many students though are afraid that
they will fail the examination and cannot continue their academic
studies at the university level. Consequently, they turn to corruption.
They try to collect 20,000 riels to 40,000 riels (about US$5 to US$10)
for the teacher during the exam. In every class, all students take part
in such a scheme, and the teacher receives a large sum of money.
Students from rich families can naturally pay a much larger amount of
money to teachers—about 60,000 riels (US$15)—and their children can pass
automatically, can get very good scores and get a degree and continue
their studies at a university. Every year students can thus pass easily
because they use money to buy their scores from the teacher, and they
also can use their money to even hire the teacher to fill out the exam
Another corrupt practice by some students involves selling the test
answers in class during the examination. It becomes a very popular
business sometimes because a number of students can earn a large amount
of money during exam time.
Later, when all the students pass their high school exams and continue
to study at a university in Phnom Penh, they still persist with this
academic corruption; for at the university, some students, especially
from rich families, are lazy—they don’t like to study—so they just
continue using their money to buy good test scores, degrees, etc. With
money as the king of the country, they can do anything, even buy a
graduate degree. Some universities are even set up for this kind of
business. They cooperate with the government and Ministry of Education,
working together very well to sell undergraduate and graduate degrees,
such as master’s and doctor’s degrees—anything is possible!
Through practices and behavior such as those described above in just the
education sector, Cambodia has been recognized as one of the most
corrupt countries in the world. In its global survey for 2011, for
example, the anti-corruption non-governmental organization (NGO) based
in Berlin, Transparency International (TI), ranks Cambodia in its
Corruption Perception Index (CPI) No. 164 out of the 183 countries that
it studied last year. Sadly, corruption is prevalent in the country in
every public and private institution, every government and
non-government institution, while 60 percent of Cambodia’s people live
under the poverty line.
I would now like to share about corruption in my present place of
employment—the Parliament of Cambodia. It is a place that is committed
to corruption. People look at Parliament and believe it is a great
institution that creates laws, perhaps amends the Constitution, etc.,
but, in reality, it is an institution where corruption hides below the
surface. As I just noted, many people look from outside its walls and
see Parliament as a an institution where peaceful deliberation occurs
about issues of great importance to the country; but instead of this
peaceful understanding of its processes and procedures, it is a place
full of injustice and corruption.
Let us look deeper at this great legislative institution. According to
the Constitution and parliamentary regulations, there is no division, no
discrimination and no gender inequality in Parliament. Members of
Parliament serve and respect the Constitution and its provisions.
Parliament and parliamentarians work to serve the country with a sense
of duty to maintain peace in the country and to respect human rights,
freedom and justice. People have the right to share their ideas, to
criticize and to have access to any information they want or need.
However, the reality of life in Parliament is different. Cambodia’s
Parliament has become the Parliament of Partisanship, the Parliament of
Corruption and Injustice, while many people suffer in the country.
People who work in Parliament are feeling uncomfortable, pressured,
seeing injustice and working with suffering. They see that Parliament
has become the Parliament, not of the country, but of the families and
political parties of the elected members.
Currently, Parliament is like the family of the Cambodian People’s Party
(CPP); it is like a comfortable house of the CPP. Most parliamentarians
are from the CPP and wield so much power in Parliament. They draft or
make new laws, and they call their CPP family members to come and
approve the law or any regulation on which they are working to serve
their family or their party’s benefit.
I have evidence from my observations every day in my office. There is a
man who has experience in bringing new people to work in Parliament, for
instance,. I know that if someone wants to work in Parliament they have
to pay about US$6,000 to US$10,000 per person to him. He said that this
money is used for this particular “service” to bring them to Parliament
to work. I notice though that some people lose their money because
Parliament does not need more workers. The broker, however, does not
promise to give them back their money. In this way, many people and
their families have lost money because they want their sons and
daughters to work for the Parliament. Meanwhile, if a person has a good
relationship with a parliamentarian, it is easy to come and work for
Parliament because parliamentarians have the right or privilege to bring
in people to work as staff members in Parliament and serve them.
In Parliament, corruption is a normal occurrence that happens regularly,
although sometimes it is difficult to prove that it is corruption, but,
in fact, corruption takes place. For a high position in Parliament,
people may find it hard to get the position if they do not have a large
amount of money, for every leading position, such as the head of an
office or department or the deputy of a department or any other good
position, requires a great deal of money to get the post. The money may
be borrowed from another person, however, so that when they get the seat
or position they then engage in further corruption in order to get money
to repay the money they borrowed, and this cycle continues indefinitely.
Corruption though is not just confined to Parliament: it takes place in
every government institution.
For example, the police, which work for the Ministry of Interior, do not
fulfill their duty in the field when a crime occurs, such as a murder,
robbery, etc. Rather, they seem to ignore the crime and let the crime
take place. Sometimes the police themselves even create these criminal
problems. Many Cambodian people, in fact, remark that the police are the
killers, are the thieves. Moreover, sometimes when the police arrest the
perpetrator of a crime they do not detain them in jail or report the
case to the court. Instead, the police release the killer, the robber.
Why? It is because the killers or perpetrators of other crimes have
offered them a sizeable amount of money. Thus, when the killer or robber
gives money to the police, they automatically release them and set them
If one looks at the newspapers, they will read about murders, robberies,
rapes, the trafficking of people, human rights abuses, etc., very
frequently, and these personal tragedies happen every day. Society
consequently becomes insecure; people live with fear; they are afraid
that this stealing and shooting will happen to them.
In Cambodian society, corruption has therefore become a hot issue, for
it has become a culture and a major problem that people regularly have
to face. Many Cambodian people talk about corruption, cry about
corruption and suffer from corruption. Corruption becomes the root cause
of the problem that leads Cambodia to develop very slowly. It is like a
silent killer that destroys Cambodian society and its people.
According to Stephen Higgins, president of the ANZ Royal Bank of
Cambodia, corruption is a major problem in Cambodia that is hard to
It can be solved though, but it takes a long time; it requires a strong
commitment for a generation.
As noted previously, corruption is everywhere in the country that is
especially embedded deep in government institutions. Every government
official, like the leading staff members in Parliament described
earlier, get their position by using money to buy their job, and they
borrow money from others for this purpose, like their legislative
colleagues. In order to pay it back, they have to practice corruption to
get the money. If not through corruption, how can they repay what they
have borrowed to acquire their position and status? Because their salary
is very low, they have to participate in the tradition and culture of
I know from my experience that in order to get a good job as an official
in the Taxation Dept. one has to pay at least US$15,000, to get a good
position as a lawyer requires US$30,000 and for a position in the courts
about US$50,000 is needed.
Cambodian people believe that a good position means good money. They
just think about how to get that good position to get money. They do not
think about the future of the society in which they live and the future
of their next generation. They only think about their own benefit, even
if they destroy or kill people or even sometimes cheat their own family
members. Just for money, they fail to think about humanity, dignity and
the happiness within their family and people around them. They fail to
do good deeds. They instead live in a delusional world, the world of
materialism, the world of killing, stealing, cheating and exploitation.
I believe that people who live for materialism and with this delusion
will never find the way to attain happiness in life. They will only see
monetary things as the value of their life and will engage in many
corrupt practices to fulfill their passion for greed. At the end of
their life, however, no one will bring even a dress for their body.
* Hor Hen is a 2007 alumni of the School of Peace (SOP) conducted by
Interfaith Cooperation Forum (ICF) in Bangalore, India. He lives in
Phnom Penh, Cambodia.