I lived in Cambodia for 5 years and was very sad when I had to leave. During this time I made many Cambodian friends and experienced first hand the shear resilience and determination of those living in extreme poverty, trying to make a better life for themselves and their children. It is against this background that I now try to raise awareness of their plight.
The name probably most associated with Cambodia is that of Pol Pot or brother number 1, known because of the radical communist Khmer Rouge party he lead. The Khmer Rouge conducted years of guerrilla warfare before seizing power in 1975. A time avidly portrayed in the Roland Joffé film ‘the killing fields’. An estimated 1.7 million Cambodians died over a three year period, many from exhaustion or starvation. Others were tortured and executed. In pursuit of a rural utopia, the Khmer Rouge reset the clock to year zero, abolished money and private property and emptied cities ordering city dwellers into the countryside to cultivate the fields. Everything was destroyed and the country’s skill base was lost as anyone seen as intellectual and educated (i.e. doctors, engineers, lawyers, teachers and even those who wore glasses) were killed. After the fall of the Khmer Rouge there followed nearly 20 years of civil war drawing to a close only as recently as 1993. The affects can still be seen today, with around 70% of Cambodia’s adult population surviving on subsistence farming and Cambodia remains one of the poorest countries in the world relying heavily on international aid.
However Cambodia had a hidden gem that was to help kick start the economy and open the country to tourism – Angkor Wat near Siem Reap in the north west of the country. Said to be the largest religious building in the world, now a UNESCO world heritage site it draws millions of visitors each year. This influx of foreign visitors not only produces a flow of much needed dollars but also has an unexpected effect. Foreign visitors meet Cambodians. For Westerners with an altruistic nature these people living in abject poverty emit a siren song. Gentle smiling friendly people who always show respect and share even their last grain of rice. All with horrific stories of what had happened to them during the Khmer Rouge period. Many suffering a miserable existence, from orphaned children to limbless land mine victims but no one complaining or expecting.
This interaction leads to an increase in awareness. An awareness of the hardship and poverty being suffered by the majority of Cambodian people. For the visitor it’s not just something seen on the television news it’s face to face: it’s real. They are moved and shocked often referring to their visit to Cambodia as a life changing experience. They realise how much they have in their own lives compared to Cambodians and cannot turn off the siren song, playing on their conscience, drawing them to do something to help.
The town of Siem Reap has developed fast to cater for the growing number of visitors to Angkor Wat, with a full range of first class hotels, guesthouses, restaurants and shops, making it an agreeable place to stay and live. This in turn has encouraged an increasing number of foreigners to take up residence and set up non governmental organisations (charities) to try and help the people they have met. In 2010 the number of these small independent organisations was estimated to be in the order of 400 in Siem Reap province alone. Others who cannot make the move are more than happy to make donations or volunteer for a short time and this produces large sums of money for these small organisations to use. Making real differences in the lives of many deserving people. However it is not immediately obvious to the newly arrived ex-pat or visitor that Cambodia has a veneer, a glossy surface that projects an image of ‘respectability’ but lurking just below this surface is Cambodia’s greatest problem – the scourge of corruption.
We know that corruption is a major player in holding people in poverty and against the background of civil war and political violence, corruption has pervaded almost every sector of Cambodian life, with a system of acceptance and participation well entrenched in society. All forms of corruption are widespread, from a small act of paying the teacher so your child can attend class to creaming a big multi million dollar contract. Corruption has infected almost every aspect of Cambodian life and the country faces major challenges of ineffective governance, widespread poverty and systemic corruption. In 2011, Cambodia scored 2.1 on a scale of 0 (highly corrupt) to 10 (highly clean) in Transparency international’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), it ranking 164 out of the 180 countries assessed, suggesting widespread and endemic forms of corruption. The World Bank Worldwide Governance Indicators confirm this picture.
Studies have shown the judiciary is the sector most affected by corruption. Although the constitution guarantees judicial independence, this is not the case in practice. Judges at the top are appointed by the ruling political party the Cambodian Peoples Party (CPP) and it’s rare to find any judges or prosecutors who are not members of the CPP. There have been many examples of interference , open intimidation of judges by the security forces, arbitrary dismissal of judges, as well as charges being either dropped or set up after interference from officials and individuals outside of the judiciary. Another widespread practice is the payment by court staff, prosecutors and judges of a percentage of their salary to their immediate superior in order to maintain their position. Most positions are treated as business assets with a payment being expected from the appointee before taking up appointment (you buy your job). The higher the position the greater the opportunity for the holder to increase their income through corrupt practices so promotions are also subject to payments with scant regard to the ability of the person to perform the duties.
In countries such as Cambodia where corruption is systemic it is almost impossible to live without some form of involvement (survival corruption). Official salaries are often very low and impossible to live on and nothing can be obtained without some form of payment. However there are good people within the system who want to see change. These include Lawyers, Judges, Prosecutors, Police, Teachers, NGO staff, government officials and NGOs. Often ashamed when they witness their colleagues practices or are forced to follow corrupt practices themselves. They know that their society and their country would be so much better with the rule of law.