Corruption and perceptions

[Sent to the Phnom Penh Post and Khmer Times on 1 February 2019. Published by the Post on 4 February.]

Reporting on Transparency International’s release of its annual Corruption Perception Index (CPI) has, unfortunately, paid little attention to either the details of the index or some larger questions about its validity.

Transparency International’s website does not yet carry many details about how the 2018 CPI was compiled, but the method was presumably not greatly different from 2017. For that year, TI says that the CPI was “based on 13 sources that collect the assessment of experts and business executives on some specific corrupt behaviour in the public sector (i.e. bribery, diversion of public funds, use of public office for private gain, nepotism in the civil service and state capture)”.

At least four aspects deserve attention:

1. As “Perception” indicates, the index is based on the opinions of those TI chooses to consult, not on objective criteria. Yes, it would be more difficult to question farmers in Kampot or coal miners in West Virginia, but are their opinions any less relevant, and might they not be different from those of the people actually asked?

2. It is not clear how TI or its sources determine who is an “expert” on corruption. Presumably, it is not, for TI, corrupt officials or their corrupters, although who would know more about the subject?

And business executives are hardly a reliable source of cross-cultural information: an executive in one country may regard as “normal business” the same behaviour that a similar executive in another country considers to be corruption. Furthermore, are business executives whose companies bribe regulators likely to give an honest opinion on the level of corruption around them?

3. The CPI relates only to corruption “in the public sector”. In many countries, public sector corruption is minor compared to private sector corruption, some of which was exposed after the 2008 global financial crisis and which includes things like stock market manipulation, falsification of financial documents, conspiracy to control interest rates, bribery of financial news media, manipulation or falsification of political parties’ internal procedures and much else. All of the five “specific corrupt behaviours” occur also in the private sector, if we substitute “private” for “public”, “corporate bureaucracy” for “civil service” and “corporate” for “state”.

It would also be helpful to know where TI draws the line between the public and private sectors. If a (private) company or its owners give a million dollars to a private individual expecting something in return, and this individual is later elected to public office, is that “private” or “public” sector corruption?

4. The specific behaviour of “state capture” is also interesting. According to Wikipedia, “The classical definition of state capture refers to the way formal procedures (such as laws and social norms) and government bureaucracy are manipulated by private individuals and firms so as to influence state policies and laws in their favour. State capture seeks to influence the formation of laws to protect and promote influential private interests.”

The problem here is that this evades the question of when a state was captured. After the passage of time, “state capture” begins to look like “normality” or “the way things should be”. A state that was captured a century or more ago appears – at least to people like TI – as no longer captive and therefore not corrupt.

But does anyone seriously doubt that the laws and bureaucracy of countries like the United States, Britain, Australia etc. serve to “promote influential private interests” of a fairly well-defined layer? Conversely, if a government and its laws are new, for example, they are more likely to look like “state capture”.


Five years ago, responding to TI’s 2013 CPI, Dr Jason Hickel of the London School of Economics pointed out that TI’s map of world corruption shows North America, Western Europe and Australia and New Zealand as “clean”, while the rest of the world is “corrupt”. Unsurprisingly, nothing has changed in that regard.

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Posted in corruption, Corruption Perception Index, state capture, Transparency International | Leave a comment

Sanctions and the EU

[Sent to the Phnom Penh Post and Khmer Times on 20 January 2019. Published by the Post on 22 January.]

Has the European Union just shot itself in the foot?

The EU has been threatening to sanction Cambodia, for not conducting its elections as it was told to do, by withdrawing tariff exemptions under the Everything But Arms program.

But then, on January 16, the European Commission announced it was going to start imposing tariffs on Cambodian rice.

The reason? Nothing to do with elections, sanctions, arms or the like. No: it was only to protect European rice “producers” (in reality, probably not the producers but the big agribusinesses that exploit the real producers).

The move was in response to “a significant increase” of Cambodian (and Myanmar) rice imports into Europe. One might have thought that the aim of tariff exemptions was to allow an increase of imports of the relevant commodity. Clearly, such a view is naive.

The real aim is to portray the EU as magnanimously trying to help less developed countries – on the condition that doing so not impinge on the interests of anyone in Europe who matters. Your products can be tariff-free unless an EU competitor complains.

The European Commission statement says that the new import tax will be gradually reduced over three years. That will happen unless the EC changes its mind. For example, if the tax hasn’t sufficiently reduced Cambodian and Myanmar imports by then, it could be extended, or even increased, just as arbitrarily as the way in which it has just been imposed. Western “aid” tends to be like that.

So the message from the EU is this: Don’t do as you’re told and you’ll lose our “assistance”. Or do as you’re told and you’ll still lose our “assistance” when we feel like it.

It rather reduces the effectiveness of the sanctions threat, doesn’t it?

Posted in Cambodia, European Union, sanctions, tariffs | Leave a comment

Coverage of ECCC verdict: A good example of bad reporting

[Submitted to the Khmer Times on 18 November 2018.]

National and international media prominently reported the conviction of Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan announced by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia on 16 November.

As was to be expected, the quality of this coverage varied. What might have been unexpected by many readers, however, was the degree of ignorance displayed by the New York Times. Some of this ignorance served as the basis for an attempt to use the Khmer Rouge trials to discredit the Cambodian government.

The Times report of the verdict, by Hannah Beech, declares that “Cambodia was known during the Khmer Rouge era” as the “state of Kampuchea”. It does not require extensive historical research to discover that the Khmer Rouge regime was called “Democratic Kampuchea”. Perhaps Beech and the Times have confused the KR regime with the government that overthrew it in 1979, which in 1989 changed its name from “Peoples Republic of Kampuchea” (PRK) to “State of Cambodia”.

Beech begins by calling the ECCC “an international tribunal” but later refers to it as a “United Nations-backed tribunal”. Neither is an accurate description, as anyone knows who has followed the history of the court with a modicum of attention. The ECCC is a hybrid, part of the courts of Cambodia, as its name states, but “extraordinary” in that it includes international judges selected by the UN and operates under a structure jointly managed by Cambodia and the UN.

The trials have not been held, as Beech claims, “in a custom-built courthouse on the outskirts of Phnom Penh”. The trials, and many of the associated offices and court infrastructure, have been housed in buildings that were “custom built” for the headquarters of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces. This fact is relevant to Beech’s most outrageous claim, namely that Prime Minister Hun Sen “opposed the formation of the tribunal in the first place”.

Are Beech and/or the Times counting on readers who are as ignorant as they appear to be? Consider the following:

1. Beginning in 1979, the PRK consistently called for international backing and participation in a trial of leaders of the Khmer Rouge. Lacking such backing, it conducted its own trial (necessarily in absentia) of the top then surviving KR leaders Pol Pot and Ieng Sary. In 1986, Hun Sen repeated the 1979 request for international assistance in a trial in a letter to the UN secretary general.

2. The more immediate path to the ECCC started in June 1997, when First and Second Prime Ministers Norodom Ranariddh and Hun Sen wrote to the UN, asking for international assistance in organising and conducting trials.

3. After negotiations between the UN and the Cambodian government, the latter demonstrated its support for a hybrid tribunal through a unanimous vote of the National Assembly in 2001.

4. The UN Office of Legal Affairs abruptly withdrew from the negotiations in 2002. Had the Cambodian government not wanted the trials, this would have been an opportunity to abandon the effort at virtually no political cost. Instead, it went on a year-long diplomatic offensive that resulted in a vote by the UN General Assembly instructing the OLA to resume the negotiations.

5. Unlike other countries in which the UN has been involved in trials of former leaders, Cambodia has made significant contributions to the costs of the KR trials. In addition to giving up the headquarters of the RCAF for more than 12 years, it has made a host of in-kind contributions in infrastructure services and facilitation and protection of investigations; their value is estimated at $16 million. The Cambodian government’s cash contributions to the functioning of the ECCC have been $29 million. Among governments providing support for the ECCC, Cambodia’s contribution is surpassed only by Japan’s.

6. Through most of the trials, government radio and TV stations have provided live coverage of the proceedings.

7. Beech may be correct when she says that Prime Minister Hun Sen believes that the trials have accomplished what they needed to accomplish and do not need to go on indefinitely. However, she claims that “others would like trials to extend to many lower-ranking officials” without telling us who those “others” are. This is a reference to the so-called cases 003 and 004, in which potential defendants are from a lower level than those in cases 001 and 002. None of the “others” who want to pursue these cases are Cambodian judicial officials of the ECCC: all of the personnel investigating these cases are UN-appointed officials. Despite this, the Cambodian government has continued providing security and other support for those investigations since they were initiated in 2008.

8. For a government that was supposedly opposed to the KR trials, it has done a great deal to preserve their records and results, including establishing memorials and creating and funding the Legal Documentation Centre related to the ECCC.

Predictably, Beech completely ignores the context when she trots out the 1998 words of Hun Sen that Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan should be met with “bouquets of flowers, not with prisons and handcuffs”. Yes, when Hun Sen’s Win-Win Policy persuaded leaders of the remaining Khmer Rouge forces to stop fighting, that necessarily involved abstaining from immediately throwing those leaders into prison and welcoming them back into Cambodian society. But they were not promised an amnesty from future prosecution.

Here we are dealing with questions that often seem to have puzzled other media in addition to the New York Times. In a rather tired trope, Beech writes that the ECCC “entire effort has cost more than $300 million” but complains that “the court has convicted just three senior Khmer Rouge leaders”.

Justice, it seems, is a matter of cost effectiveness, like an advertising campaign for toothpaste: “we invested $x million in TV spots but only increased sales by 3% – fire the advertising department”; “we invested $300 million in trials and only got three people convicted – what extravagance!” (I don’t have the figures, but a significant part of that $300 million would have been spent on cases 003 and 004: do the “others” backing further trials hope thereby to improve their cost effectiveness [conviction/expenditure ratio]?)

Of course, trials of KR criminals necessarily involved the eventual imprisonment of some of the criminals. But putting people in jail was never the main point. Two related aims were always what the trials were primarily about. The first was to create an authoritative record in which Cambodians would share with each other what they had been through. The second was to have this record internationally recognised, particularly by the UN, whose support for and seating of the Khmer Rouge for a dozen years after their overthrow was an offence against millions of Cambodians.

In these objectives, particularly the first, the ECCC has been hugely successful. Beech seems unable to recognise this reality even when she refers to some of its elements. She acknowledges that the court has spent more than a decade “sift[ing] through hundreds of thousands of pages of documents, call[ing] hundreds of witnesses and hear[ing] in exhaustive detail how the Khmer Rouge ran its killing fields”. But later in the article, she follows up with the total non sequitur that, in regard to the KR period, “little national introspection has occurred”.

Little national introspection”! It would be difficult to invent a more foolish and arrogant remark. What sort of introspection could surpass the trials and documentation provided by the ECCC?

Uncountable numbers of Cambodians have listened to the trials on radio or television; half a million made the journey from the provinces to observe the ECCC proceedings in Phnom Penh; 8,000 submitted complaints to the prosecution or applications to become part of the trials. All that is not good enough, apparently: none of those Cambodians have thought as deeply as have Beech and the NYT editors about what happened to them in the “state of Kampuchea”.

Posted in ECCC, Hun Sen, Khmer Rouge trials, Office of Legal Affairs, United Nations | Leave a comment

Elections: An open letter to President Trump

[Sent to the Khmer Times and Phnom Penh Post on 15 November 2018. Published by the Post on 20 November.]

Dear Mr President,

The recent US elections have produced considerable controversy about parties on one side or the other allegedly rigging the results reported by computers. And then, in some cases, when a recount is conducted, the computers overheat and the recount can’t be completed.

I would like to suggest a way to end these problems. The US should adopt the Cambodian system of counting votes.

In Cambodian elections, the votes are counted by people, not by computers. Representatives of the parties involved are present and can check the count if they think the person counting has made a mistake. The ballots are retained in case anyone else might later want to have them checked again.

Having computers instead of people count ballots was introduced as a way of speeding up election results, but it hasn’t even done that. And anyway, surely a speedy result is not more important than an accurate result.

According to what I read, US educational standards have deteriorated in recent years. But I hope there are still enough US officials available who would be able to count ballots.

However, if US election officials require training in numeracy or other aspects of vote counting, the Cambodian government would probably be willing to provide some of its election officials on secondment to train US officials in these skills.

With this Cambodian assistance, the US might be able to conclude its next elections in a much less divisive atmosphere.


Allen Myers

Posted in Cambodia, Donald Trump, elections | Leave a comment

A need for election monitors

[Published in the Phnom Penh Post on 13 August 2018.]

Now that Cambodia’s national elections have concluded peacefully, Cambodian politicians, civil society and other opinion leaders may be able to make an important contribution to the maintenance or development of democracy in other countries.

The United States is scheduled to hold elections for all of its House of Representatives and one-third of its Senate in November. The conditions under which these elections will be held are a matter of considerable and increasing dispute.

The opposition Democratic Party has accused legislators of the currently ruling Republican Party of manipulating electoral boundaries (“gerrymandering”) to the latter’s advantage. Many Democrats also charge that the Republicans have accepted illegitimate assistance from foreign countries, mainly Russia, and have violated traditional legislative rules in order to fill the courts with political allies.

On the other side, the Republicans accuse the Democrats of encouraging voting by people who are not US citizens or are disqualified from voting for other reasons. President Donald Trump has many times publicly proclaimed that 5 million foreign citizens voted illegally in the country’s 2016 election.

Furthermore, many aspects of US elections are conducted by computer systems whose operations are not at all transparent, and which may be subject to hacking.

In this polarised situation, it seems certain that whichever party fares less well in the November elections will denounce the result as illegitimate, which can only increase the level of mutual hostility.

But perhaps Cambodia could help to defuse the situation, even if only a little, by providing monitors to observe and report on the conduct of the upcoming elections.

Of course, it is too late for monitors from Cambodia or any other countries to push for changes in US laws that often allow a minority of voters to elect the President or a majority of the House of Representatives and Senate, especially since both major parties seem to regard these undemocratic provisions as sacrosanct.

However, the presence of impartial Cambodian and other monitors might help to give the US elections a legitimacy that would otherwise be denied by the losing side.

Posted in Cambodia, election observers, United States | Leave a comment

An easy choice

[Sent to the Khmer Times and Phnom Penh Post on 7 August. Published by the Post on 15 August 2018.]

Donald Trump has declared that the world must choose between “doing business” with Iran and with the United States. Since the aim of this enforced choice is to allow the US government to violate any agreements it has signed but now finds inconvenient, the choice is easy.

I will therefore refrain from buying any US products if the same product is available from any other source.

Fortunately, in Cambodia most US products have to compete with European products, and the European countries involved are seeking to maintain the agreement that Trump is violating. I hope that others who consider nuclear non-proliferation more important than the “right” of big powers to bully other countries will join me in refusing to buy US products whenever there is an alternative.

Posted in Iran, nuclear weapons, sanctions | Leave a comment

Democracy: A comparison

[Sent to the Phnom Penh Post and Khmer Times on 29 July 2018. Not published.]

Several members of the US Congress have introduced a bill supposedly intended to bring about greater democracy in Cambodia. That raises the need for some comparisons.

In Cambodia, the party that receives the most votes heads the government.

In the United States, the current president received nearly 3 million fewer votes than his opponent. The president elected in 2000 also received fewer votes than his opponent.

In Cambodia, the party that receives the most votes has always had a majority in the National Assembly.

In the United States, it is possible for a majority in the House of Representatives to be won by a party that lost the popular vote. For example, in the 2012 election, the Republicans received a national vote total that was 1.4 million less than the Democrats received, but the Republicans won 234 seats compared to only 201for the Democrats.

In Cambodia, Senators are elected by commune councillors and the National Assembly, and therefore approximately in proportion to the population.

In the United States, Senators elected by less than one-sixth of the population are half of the Senate; the vote for senator of one voter in the least populous state equals the vote of 65 people in the most populous state.

In Cambodia, the government has actively and consistently encouraged all citizens to vote.

In the United States, a significant number of state legislatures have been imposing restrictions that limit the number of voters.

In Cambodia, elections are conducted with paper ballots, which are carefully preserved in case there is a need for a recount.

In the United States, most votes are cast on electronic machines that keep no verifiable record, which have malfunctioned in the past and which many experts fear can be hacked.

In Cambodia, the government and legislature operate on the principle that each country should manage its own affairs, without outside interference.

In the United States, the government and legislature act on the belief that they have the right to prescribe rules for other countries.

Doesn’t it make you think about who should be teaching whom about democracy?

Posted in democracy, elections | Leave a comment