March 2012


Doctrine divides, Action unites

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Cambodia’s Corruption Epidemic

Hor Hen


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

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 students?

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 questions.

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 free.

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 solve.

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 corruption.

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.