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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Cambodia's corruption 'cancer' unlikely to sway voters

Cambodian opposition party leader Sam Rainsy (centre) stands on a truck as he greets supporters during an election rally in Phnom Penh on June 26. Cambodia is rising from the ashes of civil war and the brutal legacy of the Khmer Rouge's "Killing Fields," but it remains hobbled by endemic corruption hindering its efforts to escape poverty. (AFP/File/Tang Chhin Sothy)

Cambodia's corruption 'cancer' unlikely to sway voters

PHNOM PENH (AFP) — Cambodia is rising from the ashes of civil war and the brutal legacy of the Khmer Rouge's "Killing Fields," but it remains hobbled by endemic corruption hindering its efforts to escape poverty.

As the country records high economic growth, authorities have been accused of extorting payoffs and officials have been linked to everything from high profile land grabs and skimming off development projects to illegal logging.

"Corruption is the biggest problem for the nation. Corruption is like a cancer right now -- it happens everywhere," said Kek Galabru, head of local human rights group Licadho.

Cambodia remains mired near the bottom of Transparency International's global corruption index, indicating the government is among the most graft-ridden on the planet.

Prime Minister Hun Sen has said that his government is acutely aware that "corruption is a dangerous cancer" that needs to be tackled "without compromise."

But as Cambodia heads into elections Sunday, analysts say there's no sign that rampant corruption will hurt his Cambodian People's Party (CPP) at the polls, which it is widely expected to dominate.

Hun Sen has promised to hand over his personal properties to the new government if the CPP fails to win, apparently in an effort to counter allegations that his government is too corrupt to stay in power.

However, the CPP is the only one of the 11 parties in the campaign that has not promised to pass a long-awaited anti-corruption law.

Main opposition leader Sam Rainsy kicked off his campaign by declaring to cheering supporters: "Down with the corrupt group!"

But he said in an interview that many voters don't have a full understanding of the way corruption affects their lives.

"When people see what corruption is and what bad activities there are, they will support the SRP," Sam Rainsy told AFP, referring to his party.

International donors, who fund half the country's budget, have repeatedly demanded that the government take stronger action against corruption since UN-backed elections in 1993 brought democracy here.

Hun Sen lost that first election to a royalist party, but he bargained his way into a power-sharing deal and then reasserted total control in a 1997 coup.

Hundreds of people were killed in the run-up to elections the following year, and protests against the CPP victory were put down violently.

The last national election in 2003 was far less violent, and this year's campaign has seen even fewer irregularities than in the past, said monitors.

This could be partly because the country is more stable, with double-digit economic growth from garment exports and tourism helping to pull Cambodia from the ruins of civil war.

Up to two million people died of starvation and overwork, or were executed, as the communist Khmer Rouge dismantled modern Cambodia in a bid to forge an agrarian utopia during its 1975-1979 rule.

Despite the recent stability, Cambodia remains one of the world's poorest nations. Some 35 percent of its 14 million people live on less than 50 US cents a day, and economists say corruption is a major drag on the nation's growth.

But persistent poverty does not mean that voters will turn against the government on polling day.

"This (the opposition's anti-corruption) message may sway some voters, but is not decisive to change the leadership," said Lao Mong Hay, a senior researcher at the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission.

"The issues do not affect voters' decision as much as personalities."

The CPP has relied on Hun Sen's broad rural appeal and its record of gradual development in its pursuit of victory, and some analysts said this makes voters forget about rampant corruption.

CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap said only a "small handful" of his party members were corrupt and said it deals with graft "step by step towards development."

"We are not neglectful about fighting graft," Cheam Yeap said. "Fighting corruption is the hot issue that we care about."

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