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Last Updated: Monday, 19 September 2005, 15:17 GMT 16:17 UK
Corruption dents Cambodia democracy
Robin Lustig
By Robin Lustig
BBC News, Phnom Penh

In the second of his five-part series, Looking for Democracy, the BBC's Robin Lustig reports from Cambodia.

Article 1 of Cambodia's constitution says it will be governed according to the principles of "liberal democracy and pluralism".

Village leader Kuch Veng
Land is being carved up by big corporations with little say from inhabitants
But when the government grants long leases or concessions to development companies to work on state-owned land, it pays little heed to the wishes of the people who live on that land.

Not very democratic, especially when the companies seem to be closely connected to senior members of the government or armed forces.

Talk to Cambodians about democracy and they will tell you two things.

First, that the land is being stolen from the people, 85% of whom live in rural areas and 75% of whom are subsistence farmers.

And second, that corruption is everywhere, from the top to the bottom of society.


Two examples. I had been told that if I watched at any street corner in the capital, Phnom Penh, I would soon see the traffic cops demand a bribe from a hapless motorist.

I was sceptical, so I put it to the test. As we approached an intersection, my Cambodian companion pointed suddenly to the side of the road.

"There, look, what did I tell you?" he says.

I have heard the word, but I've never really known what it means
Ja Sao Li, villager

Sure enough, a gaggle of traffic cops were engaged in earnest conversation with a distinctly unhappy-looking motorcyclist.

We pulled over and waited to see what would happen. A few minutes later, he drove off, and just out of sight of the cops, we flagged him down.

"What was that all about?" we asked. The story was exactly as predicted.

He had pulled away a bit too sharply from the traffic lights - the cops said he should have waited for the green signal. One payment required, 5,000 riels, just a fraction over $1 (55p). He managed to get them down to 3,000 riels and paid up.

Did they give him a receipt? He laughs. Of course not.

Second example. I am talking to a human rights lawyer about corruption in the judiciary.

What proportion of judges does he think take bribes? "100%," he says.

Again, I am sceptical. So the next day, I visit the municipal courthouse and ask another lawyer. No, he says seriously, not 100%, about 95%.

What about the case we had just watched - a civil claim by someone wanting a contract to be annulled - would the judge want a bribe to decide that? Oh yes, he says, probably between $200 and $500, depending on the size of the contract.


It is 12 years now since the UN organised elections in Cambodia to help it start a new, democratic chapter after the horrors of the Khmer Rouge era and the civil war that followed.

The elections took place, but did democracy take hold?

If corruption is rife, and if land is grabbed willy-nilly by powerful and well-connected corporations, are elections enough for us to say: this is now a democracy?

Last November, a hand grenade was thrown into the midst of demonstrating villagers, protesting about the loss of their land.

I asked Ja Sao Li, one of the women who was injured in that attack, what the word "democracy" meant to her.

She looked puzzled for a moment, and then she said: "I have heard the word, but I've never really known what it means."


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