Monday, January 11, 2010

The Black Economy in Cambodia

The faces of the poor people in Cambodia affected by the black economy in Cambodia

The Black Economy in Cambodia
“The misery of my people is greater than my misery,” - Jayavarman VII (1181-1218)

Character isn’t something people were born with and can’t change, like fingerprints. It’s something that people weren’t born with and must take responsibility for developing and forming. With this thought, I want to talk about excessive corruption in Cambodia, the main character of the black economy formed by the corrupted leaders, and their powerful entourage. Here, I am only interested in fixing the problem rather than assigning blame.

Unwarranted corruption has undeniably been one of the Cambodia’s main stumbling blocks to sustainable development and fighting poverty. Corruption matters and becomes the main character. It creates a lasting impression in the heart and the mind of the people of Cambodia especially the poor. Studies show that there is a strong correlation between education and economic growth in developing countries. With strong roots, the trees will provide good shade and abundant fruits for all to enjoy.

On the surface everything is in order, decisions are carried out, lives moves on, the markets are crowded, the streets are packed with motodups and cars, the city is full of activities, and the ship sails along. But where is it heading? The sailors are rowing without seeing anything, the lower ranking officers are holding their eyes up to the leadership, but the leaders are not capable of seeing past each coming, rising and tumbling wave because money is the new and real king. Even free services cost money. Schools, fire services, hospitals, the police, the army, the government officials, media reporters, the judiciary all began to demand bribes for their “supposed to be free” services. One can argue that poverty is the root cause of corruption while others say corruption the root cause of poverty. However one thing is certain that lack of education is the main cause of poverty. And quality education for ALL and the development of wisdom (law of karma) have been diagnosed as the best medicine of breaking the cycle of poverty and corruption.

The fact that people have schools doesn’t mean they have an education. The fact that people have pagodas doesn’t mean they have faith. The fact that people have courts doesn’t mean they have justice and egalitarian law. The fact people have functioning government doesn’t mean they have real democracy with freedom of expressions. The resultant impunity along with the widespread poverty and a lack of strong institutions sparked an uncontrollable mass of corruption mainly created by the top politicians, and their powerful cronies. Its contagious spread has affected all including the poor. ‘Survival’ is the main cause of corruption for the poor.

Cambodian people are trained in a culture of corruption. The epidemic low teachers salaries contribute to a vicious cycle that encourages students to bribe their way through school, and eventually use bribery to carry them through life. In the national educational system, Cambodians are educated in corruption early – students aged 6-years-old and up are forced and taught that paying unofficial fees to supplement teachers’ salary is a part of growing up. Teachers demand students pay school fee everyday. “Small man gets small bribe; big man gets big bribe” has become a popular Khmer saying. The government must admit the failure of its responsibility to educate all Cambodia’s children to their fullest potential with the academic and professional skills. The national educational system in Cambodia offers a sharp division of classes, as the rich few are in good positions at independence in private schools and have used their power to maintain themselves. Sure, the current system offers schooling to the masses of illiterates from the countryside, but just to make them able workers in the factories and not enough to be owners due to the low academic standards and the quality of teachers for the remote areas. Furthermore, schools often serve as instruments of social reproduction in which the lower class learn to be docile workers who follow orders and the upper class are trained for leadership and the exercise of power. Since quality education is liberation, the goal of teaching and learning should stress to free the minds of students from the unconscious grip of oppressive ideas about such things as their class, race, gender, or ethnic status and other forms of social repression. One becomes free of these oppressive ideas not simply by recognizing them as oppressive, but by doing something about them.

Cambodia has become an aid-dependent society and much of the foreign aid that flooded Cambodia ended up in the pockets of unscrupulous officials. A 2004 study by the US agency for International Development (USAID) showed corruption costs the Cambodian government a huge sum of $500 million in revenue. “Five hundred million is the equivalent to the cost of constructing 20,000 six room school buildings or the ability to pay every civil servant an additional $260 a month,” said US Ambassador Carol Rodley at the anti-corruption concert in Phnom-Penh in May of 2009. A 2007 Transparency International survey showed 72% of Cambodian paid bribes for public services – the highest rate in the Asia-Pacific region and second only to Cameroon (79%) globally. A 2008 Transparency International Index put Cambodia in a dismal 166th place most corrupted country. Studies compiled by the largely German funded identification of the poor households program 2008 said 30% people surveyed in four provinces (Siem Reap, Prey Veng, Kompong Cham, and Oddar Meanchey) were rated as either “poor” or “very poor”. A latest 2009 index showed a small improvement at 156th place, still a very grim spot to be. The latest score, based on eight independent surveys, indicate the perceived level of public sector corruption in Cambodia. Yet, the government rejected most of the findings analysis of the corruption levels in Cambodia even the Transparency International showed that a whooping number of 47% of Cambodian family had paid some form of bribe in 2008.

To become aid-independent and move the country forward in hope of beating the black economy to an open society of equality, justice, freedom, dignity, and progress, all kinds of corruption must be stopped and should be eliminated by adopting, implementing, and enforcing the anti-corruption law as soon as possible and to the fullest with zero tolerance from the highest to the lowest ranking. Since the government named poverty reduction as a top priority in 2009, the people of Cambodia should challenge and demand the top leaders to live up to its stated priorities and deliver the long awaiting promise to reduce poverty. It is the people’s hope that an anti-corruption law approved by the Council of Ministers on 11th December 2009 will pass in the National Assembly very soon. Yet, the government has to release the latest copies of the long awaited draft legislation. Furthermore, the current administration cannot bear any criticism of them, or even accept that others may have different views such as the historical event of 7th January 1979. In this context, change can only take place through actions. And real change may only come when the people get more educated and learn to speak their own mind without fear of oppressions. When the power of love (metta) overcomes the love of power, then real development will grow and last.