DISPUTES over control of the future of the Cambodian Mine Action Center (CMAC) are
complicating CMAC management's efforts to avoid a looming shutdown of demining operations.
As CMAC Director General Khem Sophoan scrambles to keep the demining organization
operational while prying much-needed funding from reluctant foreign donors, former
CMAC Director General Sam Sotha has waded into the fray, serving notice that CMAC
be shut down and its staff laid off until donors come up with the required cash.
Sotha, who is now Prime Minister Hun Sen's Advisor on CMAC Affairs and Land Mind
Victim Assistance, told the Post that Hun Sen was "very upset" about the
donor refusal to renew full funding for the demining organization.
Hun Sen first mooted the idea of laying off 90% of CMAC staff earlier this month
in response to foreign donor insistence, in particular that of Australian Ambassador
Malcolm Leader, that the Cambodian government shoulder a greater share of CMAC's
"It's not my idea [to temporarily shut down CMAC]," Sotha explained. "But
if there's no [donor] money, there's no choice."
In a confidential letter sent last week by Sotha to Sophoan, Sotha apparently questioned
Sophoan's efforts to keep CMAC afloat.
According to a CMAC source who has read the letter, Sotha described CMAC as "
an old house [which] ... must be dismantled and then rebuilt."
In an interview with the Post on Oct 13, Sotha denied that he urged the dismantling
of CMAC, but added that "...the concept I somewhat agree with".
Sophoan is clearly distressed by the stance taken by Sotha, who in early August was
dismissed from his position as part of a reform package that donors have linked to
the resumption of funding to CMAC.
"I'm afraid that CMAC will become a political organization instead of a humanitarian
organization," Sophoan said of Sotha's renewed involvement with CMAC.
According to Sotha, Hun Sen's involvement in CMAC's funding troubles was simply an
expression of "concern".
"I don't see this as political," he said. "I know Hun Sen very well
... Without him CMAC wouldn't exist ... he wouldn't play games with CMAC."
Sotha also denied that his advisory role on CMAC affairs was tainted by personal
malice against CMAC management rooted in his dismissal in August.
"I would never give [Hun Sen] advice or use this position as a way to get revenge,"
Sotha said. "I've always said that I consider CMAC my baby ...though not the
people in CMAC headquarters."
A CMAC official who would only speak off the record indicated that Sotha's record
as the demining organization's Director General disqualified him from any further
involvement with CMAC.
"The KPMG audit specified that CMAC suffered from 'serious management deficiencies'",
the source explained. "As Director-General [during the period the audit covered]
Sam Sotha was ultimately responsible for those deficiencies."
Last week Sophoan outlined three options to resolve CMAC's funding crisis, one of
which included a complete shutdown favored by Sotha and Hun Sen, another which involved
the immediate dismissal of 30% of CMAC staff.
However, Sophoan clearly favors a third proposal which calls for temporary, graduated
pay cuts of all CMAC staff of between 20% and 50%.
"If we reduce the salaries [of CMAC employees], we can continue to do demining
work until the New Year," Sophoan told the Post on Oct. 7. "I would rather
struggle until we finish all the money in CMAC's budget before considering shutting
Sophoan's leadership and the results of an audit of donor funds to CMAC by the international
accounting firm KPMG, which cleared CMAC management of embezzlement allegations,
have clearly helped boost donor confidence, with both Australia and Britain kicking
in short-term cash injections of $300,000 each in the past week.
Although Canadian Ambassador Normand Mailhot indicated that additional stopgap donor
funding was in the offing, the loosening of donor purse strings long-anticipated
by a positive result of the KPMG audit has not yet occurred, with donor countries
such as the United States still leery of future CMAC contributions.
"CMAC simply does not come up to standards by which responsible donors can justify
[resuming] funding," explained US Ambassador Kent W Weidemann. "Before
[donors] feel comfortable with funding CMAC ... we would also like to see that reform
plans are implemented [with] concrete results."
The continuing stoppage of donor support for CMAC has left Sophoan clearly distressed.
"I don't know why [the donors] won't give [CMAC] any money," Sophoan said.
According to Sophoan, donor insistence that the Cambodian government shoulder a larger
share of CMAC's operating cost (the government has contributed only $50,000 of the
$1.7 million it has committed to CMAC for this year) is unfair and unrealistic.
"$50,000 is all the government can afford ... salaries of government officials,
soldiers and policemen haven't been paid since July," Sophoan explained. "Prime
Minister Hun Sen has pointed out that donors all have representatives on the IMF
and in the World Bank and should understand the budget [constraints] of the Cambodian
Sophoan remains hopeful that a resolution of CMAC's funding crisis can still be achieved.
"I hope that donor countries don't want CMAC to fail," Sophoan said. "CMAC
is not a political organization, it's a humanitarian organization that cares about
reducing [mine] casualties."
Unfortunately for Sophoan, Sotha feels that an imminent closure of CMAC is almost
"It's logical and reasonable for donors to renew funding," Sotha said.
"But if they don't, myself and [CMAC Chairman] Ieng Mouly and [CMAC's] Standing
Committee agree that CMAC should close down."