Sunday,2007-05-13: Laws and Law Enforcement
The Mirror, Vol. 11, No. 507
When one reads the almost regular reports of people driven from the land on which they used to live, or where they used to earned their living, and sees that they come in their desperation to Phnom Penh – still trusting in the justice of the highest authorities – and sit in front of the National Assembly or the Royal Palace or in front of the house of some high ranking government leader, on can understand that some people say that the land problem is the most serious problem of the country. Even the Prime Minister has raised his warning voice more than once in the past, saying that to frustrate people by taking their land may lead to a farmers’ revolution.
Recently, the new director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights Ouk Virak, when asked in an interview in the Phnom Penh Post what he considers to be the biggest problem facing Cambodia, stated that many people say it is Land, “but it’s not. The big issue is that there is no rule of law. Powerful people have total impunity and total disregard for the court system.”
Unfortunately, there are many good reasons to agree. The fact that land grabbing continues in spite of high level warnings, is a sign that those who commit this crime do not care for the law, and assume also they can get away with it.
Recently, there were also other cases of extreme violent lawlessness. The international press outside of the country reported also about a Cambodian high-ranking military leader how was carrying a gun while not on duty in a restaurant, and using his gun to threaten a journalist who tried to speak to him. In a different incident, two groups of young people were delivering each other a protracted gun battle in front of the Spark Entertainment Center, wounding some people – according to reports those who were using guns were in their majority the sons the higher levels of society (so they had illegally access to guns).
One young person – again the son of a higher level official – accused of murder, was let free on bail, and some reports claim that he did not even have to pay bail money.
When there is now so much hope placed onto the anti-corruption law, which is in the making since many years, one can only hope that this law will, in the not too distant future, make it to the National Assembly for discussion and adoption.
But will this make much difference?
Cambodia has a lot of good laws and regulations – but they are often not being observed, and when they are violated, not much happens in many cases. While the above examples relate to violence, not observing laws and regulations happens also on other levels. And the wide knowledge that laws and regulations are not being observed and not being enforced is probably serving as an emotionally deep rooted educational experience that laws do not matter.
Some two or three years ago, when I was returning from abroad by plane from Bangkok, I happened to sit with a Cambodian father and son, coming for their first visit to Cambodia, after having fled the country during war time as refugees. They asked me about payments during the immigration procedures, and I mentioned the standard US$20 for a visa. They knew this – “But how much do we have to pay extra?” – I explained what I knew. They smiled and told me that they know that what I said is not the full reality. Twenty minutes later, when we met again outside, after finishing immigration procedures and picking up our luggage, they told me that they had paid $150, “to be on the safe side.”
They offered money where it would not have been necessary. But the other side accepted it.
Naively, I thought that a clear public announcement – a kind of anti-corruption note – could prevent such things. I was therefore happy to see, during a recent trip, that now there are stickers on every immigration police counter, in Khmer and in English: “Nothing is to be paid here.”
I saw a smiling young lady – probably a Cambodian form abroad, judging from the way she was dressed, handing over some US dollar bills together with her passport. And another man, after talking for a while to the official handling his passport, also presenting some paper dollars, after his passport had been stamped.
Maybe there should not be so much discussions on the anti-corruption law. Or the new traffic law. Or whatever other law. But more considerations should focus on how to move towards more law adherence and law enforcement.