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According to Transparency International’s 2017 Corruption Perception Index (CPI) Cambodia is perceived as one of the most corrupt countries in ASEAN, outstripping Myanmar and Laos in rank. As a result, anti-corruption reforms in Cambodia have attracted significant attention and funding from the international donor community. An emergent literature has critically studied Cambodia’s anti-corruption and good governance regime, considering the ways in which reforms often fail to achieve intended goals.f83ec4e79bd7 Typically, the persistence of corruption in Cambodia is explained as either due to 'institutional weaknesses' or 'gaps' in the current reform agenda, which might be solved with a combination of further institution-strengthening and capacity building. Yet, few have turned to the question of why – in a context of so-called rampant, institutionalised corruption0aa733be14f2 – do reforms persist at all? Or, what are we to make of the successful implementation of a number of anti-corruption initiatives in the face of increasingly authoritarian rule on the part of the Cambodian People’s Party?

Adopting a critical political economy approach to understanding regime power dynamics and political change, we argue that Cambodia’s anti-corruption reforms have been critical to the maintenance of the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) backed regime in a time of economic transformation. More specifically, we propose that elements of Cambodia’s anti-corruption regime have enabled the internal contradictions of free-market authoritarianism to be managed. That is, they allow the potentially liberating political effects of economic liberalisation to be kept in check by those in power.

Our argument has two main threads. Firstly, we show how Cambodia’s suite of anti-corruption reforms are liberal rather than democratic in nature. This means that within a context of deepening marketisation, the anti-corruption reforms facilitate the CPP’s political-economic aspirations, while reassuring international investors that reforms are proceeding apace. Secondly, we argue that Cambodia’s 'neopatrimonialism' sits in tension with more mobile dynamics of power that have been produced through the effects of market capitalism. We contend that economic liberalisation presents new challenges and opportunities for the traditional hierarchy of neopatrimonialism, whereby old elites must accommodate economically ambitious and agile newcomers.ef603771c5b7 Here, the 'shadow economy' plays a major role in shaping power structures, with strong evidence that the CPP benefits from and controls most illicit financial flows.c354805d0db6 Given this, we suggest that anti-corruption reforms have been used to discipline and tame the shadow economy, providing a means for the ruling party to surveil, accommodate and co-opt potential internal contestants to power. The extent to which anti-corruption reforms in Cambodia have succeeded therefore matches the extent to which the reforms consolidate the power of the ruling elite.

In section one, we review Cambodia’s political economy, including recent authoritarian developments. We highlight two key regime dynamics: neopatrimonialism, which is a hierarchical patron-client structure, dominated by Prime Minister Hun Sen and enabled by the extractive use of state resources; and a more flexible set of power dynamics, produced through Cambodia’s deepening economic liberalisation, which is most analogous to a 'jungle gym'5156f3aaf049 where political entrepreneurs and rising tycoons must be accommodated into established patron-client relations. We note the scale and significance of illicit revenue raising for the Cambodian state and highlight how it can both consolidate neopatrimonial dynamics as well as fuel political entrepreneurs.

In section two, we examine Cambodia’s anti-corruption reforms, arguing that they are fundamentally liberal rather than democratic in orientation. Then, by examining public finance management reform, public expenditure tracking surveys and decentralisation, we suggest that these reforms effectively deepen Cambodia’s market capitalism and provide ways for the neopatrimonial state to rationalise and reorganise the shadow economy, recentralising power relations and resolving potential competition over power.

In section three, we compare Cambodia’s anti-corruption regime with that of China, where a single party, market-authoritarian state has overseen and implemented major anti-corruption reforms. As in Cambodia, we suggest that economic liberalisation has pluralised and destabilised established dynamics of power. China’s anti-corruption regime works to recentralise power in the hands of Xi Jinping. We further suggest that given China’s close relationship with and investment in Cambodia, the CPP will continue to prioritise a liberal – though not democratic – regime of anti-corruption reforms.

Finally, in section four, we make some tentative suggestions for how donors might pursue anti-corruption reforms in Cambodia to counter some of the CPP’s centripetal dynamics and produce greater space for democratic participation.

  1. (Quah 2014)
  2. (eg Rahman 2016, Ear 2016, Un 2012)
  3. (Milne 2015, Global Witness 2016)
  4. (e.g. Eng 2016)
  5. (Reynolds 2011)