The number of complaints received by the Anti-Corruption Unit almost halved between 2014 and 2016, the six-year-old institution has said in a statement, with its chairman attributing the drop in part to fewer people complaining about issues not under its purview.
But civil society groups said yesterday that the drop might instead be attributed to no one believing that the largely inactive institution will investigate the complaints it receives.
Published online on Tuesday, the ACU statement says it only received 597 formal complaints of corruption last year, down from 781 in 2015 and 1,009 in 2014. Of the total 2,387 complaints received in the past three years, 1,125 were anonymous, it said.
ACU Chairman Om Yentieng said by telephone that he believed the drop could be attributed to people not filing complaints to the body about problems like land-grabbing, for which other specialist committees have been established to resolve issues.
“It dropped because, for example, for land issues, we told people to go to the correct institutions that have the authority to solve their problems. It meant that people knew where to go with their problems,” Yentieng said.
“And it dropped [in total] because complaints about public services had dropped. Before, there were a lot of complaints regarding public service,” he said. “But complaints in relation to the state budget remain high.”
Yet representatives of civil society groups who cover corruption yesterday said they were not so sure the drop in complaints was anything to celebrate.
The number of complaints to the ACU may have actually dropped simply because no one had any faith that the government unit would ever do anything, said Mam Sitha, executive director of the Human Rights Organization for Transparency and Peace.
“Complaints from people have been ignored or dealt with ineffectively, and that makes people lose trust in this institution,” Sitha said. “This institution just deals with the cases they want to. So, citizens are fed up and that made the number of complaints drop.”
Often when the ACU receives complaints of corruption, it seeks the official’s explanation. It then publishes the response on its website, and considers the case closed. Sitha said it was therefore little wonder people were filing fewer and fewer complaints. “The ACU should not just receive the complaint and call the accused to clarify it, and then let it be. They have to investigate with other sources,” Sitha explained. “This institution just tries to make itself look good rather than serving the national interest.”
Preap Kol, country director for Transparency International, whose Corruption Perceptions Index last year ranked Cambodia as having the highest perceived levels of corruption in Southeast Asia, said that he, too, wondered if people simply had no faith in the ACU. “In general, I have found that corruption in the open and in the public service has dropped in recent years – for example for making national identification cards, family books, residency books, or other services under the Ministry of Interior,” Kol said.
“But for the drop in complaints, there is still the question: Is this because of a drop in corruption, or because people do not believe that there would be any result from their complaints?” he said. “This needs to be studied or surveyed with the people to find out.”
The ACU was established in 2010 and – despite Cambodia frequently coming in at the bottom of global corruption indices – it has so far only prosecuted a case against one truly top-level government official: Moek Dara, the former national anti-drug czar. It also last year arrested Suth Dina, Cambodia’s ambassador to South Korea, over accusations of graft.
San Chey, director of the Affiliated Network for Social Accountability, said that Yentieng, who was formerly one of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s closest advisers, should go after more top-level officials if he wants to rebuild the ACU’s credibility.
“High-level corruption, I believe, is still big,” Chey said. “In infrastructure, for example, we suspect that there is heavy corruption [in the form of] collusion between the companies and government officials.”
“Also in natural resource management, like in forestry, I suspect that there is still a lot of corruption,” he explained. “We want to see the ACU hit these areas, which involve millions of dollars.”
However, Yentieng said the ACU was proud of its recent performance and unfazed by any criticism. “Recently, there have been a lot of international institutions who came to check our law performance,” he said, adding that the reports had been positive and that the critics should check themselves. “The ACU is not the tool of any person – it is the tool of law.”