On the grift in Cambodia


Tourists at Bokor CasinoThe issue that comes up in discussion in Cambodia more than any other topic, be it with Khmers or expats, is corruption and how prevalent it allegedly is.

It’s a touchy, complicated issue and there is no easy way to deal with it but I want to put a few thoughts down on paper on the subject, so bear with me.

Okay, first things first. Is corruption, or pokroloy as it is called in Khmer, a problem in Cambodia?

The short answer is, you bet it is: corruption, bribery, nepotism all seem depressingly out of control here.

At the same time, it’s important to add that the Khmers are no more honest or dishonest than people anywhere else, Australia included. Most of them loath how out of control the problem is and are more than happy to regal you with horror stories illustrating the prevalence of pokroloy in their lives.

A Khmer friend recently told us how robbers shot his brother twice when he disturbed them in the act of trying to steal his motorcycle. The brother crawled to a nearby tuk tuk and got the driver to take him to a major hospital, where they made him wait, dying, in reception until a relative arrived with the necessary cash to buy his admission.

Health care in Cambodia is supposed to be free, but the brother had to pay for virtually every service, large or small—including having his oxygen tube reconnected when it fell out during the night. I suppose he was lucky that his family had the money. Moneylenders apparently gravitate around the hospitals to provide on the spot loans, including hefty interest rates, so that poorer people can admit themselves or family members for treatment.

It is not unusual to see police shaking down drivers in broad daylight for bribes. They charge money for investigations – often from both the accused and the victim of the same case. I have heard teachers, revered in Khmer society, say that some rich students increasingly pay no attention in class because they know that if they fail they will simply be able to buy their way through.

Pokroloy is everywhere, everyone talks about it and everyone thinks it’s bad. But is it worse than at other times in the country’s history?

A lot of people, particularly older Khmers, depict Cambodia before the turning point of the CIA-backed coup by Lon Nol in 1970 as being largely corruption-free, when it was in fact a feudal state with its own rich tradition of graft. Rich people who donated $100,000 or more to the government could be appointed by royal decree as Ohkna, a sort of government advisor. This was based on customary law that allowed Khmer citizens to become Ohkna if they supported the social system. Of course the payment was supposed to go to the government as a whole rather than the individual minister.

Pokroloy made a comeback in the eighties. A Khmer friend tells me how government officials would go house-by-house conscripting young men to fight against the Khmer Rouge. Of course, if you had gold you could bribe your way out. His family did not and as a result he did a number of gruelling years fighting the guerrillas.

A major wave of corruption took place just after the signing of the UN peace accords. With a few months remaining until they lost their power to the UN transitional authority, there were reports of government officials engaging in a fire sale of state-owned assets.

The situation now is so serious that some say even Prime Minister Hun Sen is concerned about its potential to lead to major social upheaval.

I might be on dangerous ground here but I would speculate that there are a number of reasons why the situation has become so bad.

The People’s Republic of Kampuchea government, the precursor of the CPP, which ruled Cambodia in the eighties, was a nominally socialist government. Now it is questionable how socialist any of these parties actually were. Whatever, the pattern in Cambodia – as well as Laos and Vietnam – has been that as the ruling parties moved away from their socialist ethos the more accepting people became of huge displays of wealth and the methods people have to employ to get this.

There is so much more to buy now. Your kids want a mobile and a motorbike, your son’s wedding will cost a packet. You want a better house, a better car, just like anywhere else. Corruption is the easiest way of getting this. It is keeping up with the Jones’s Cambodian-style.

One can also speculate that as the country develops so does corruption. Small time stuff in the eighties leads to bigger graft in the nineties, often involving the exploitation of natural resources, leading to full blown corruption the country is experiencing now.

“In 1992 the corruption involved one or two small amounts of money, now it is huge,” says the NGO leader. “In the early nineties the powerful hesitated because there was some check and balance, now there is almost one-party rule, they can do what they want.”

When a rumour swept through Phnom Penh in late 1991 that a minister had evicted six families from a French villa and sold if for private profit, hundreds of people poured out of adjoining slums, hauled all the furniture out of the house and built a bonfire. They set fire to the jeep outside and trashed the villa. The police, who had not been paid for some time, reportedly stood by and watched.

The power structure that was starting to coalesce in the nineties is now fully formed and in control of most Cambodian institutions. You can bet that if a mob of angry slum dwellers got pissed off and tried to storm some rich guy’s house in 2008, as they did in the anecdote above, the last thing the police would be doing is standing around watching!

Oh, yes, and the country’s now part of the global economy, meaning many of us, from the tourist here for a short time to the company executive, are pushing pokroloy along.

I remember very vividly Phnom Penh in 1992. The UN had just landed and the place was full of new, white four-wheel drives and crawling with soldiers and consultants earning a packet, regardless of how competent or not they were. This included hefty per diems, which many of them were able to live on, because the place was seen as a ‘hardship post’. Is that pokroloy?

Moreover, many donors are prepared to accept or tolerate high levels of corruption as long as the Cambodia adopts free market orientated reforms including opening the country up to foreign investment. As part of this, a significant proportion of what is called foreign aid is actually goes towards supporting Western business interests overseas, Australia’s aid program included. Is that pokroloy?

A few weeks ago we travelled to the province of Kampot in southern Cambodia. I’d been keen to see the Bokor Mountain Casino, a massive fifties landmark, abandoned when the Khmer Rouge took over in 1975, and left derelict ever since. The government had recently given the concession for the site to a major developer who had closed it to tourists while it is renovated. I did not expect to be able to see it.

Quite by surprise, however, I was offered a tour of the site by a local Khmer company. I took the opportunity, knowing that the casino in its present state would not exist for much longer and that the trip would inevitably involve a palm or two being greased along the way.

When our bus stopped to allow the tour operators to smooth our way to the casino site, a very agitated European lady, one of our tour party, came up to me and said “You know this is all corrupt, they have to pay people to get us to the casino site.”

“So what are you doing here, then?” I said. “You are part of it.”

“Yes,” she conceded. “We are all a part of it.”

Pokroloy indeed.


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