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Demob numbers conundrum

Demob numbers conundrum

Dear Editor,

I was surprised to read Annette Marcher's November 29 article "World Bank

denies demob process corrupt." which challenged my article: "Cambodian

Demobilization scheme 'rife with corruption," published in the Bangkok Post

on October 29.

My article presented criticisms of the World Bank-sponsored demobilization programme,

and emphasized the 1998 United Nations Population Fund census, which stated that

the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces stood at 101,397, not 150,000 as the Cambodian Government

and World Bank claimed.

Ms Marcher's article contained two fundamental flaws: firstly, she used dubious arithmetic

to dispute my figures; second, she utilized an error-ridden interview with World

Bank Country Representative for Cambodia, Bonaventure Mbida-Essama, who falsely implies

that I fabricated comments made by him.

In her critique of my figures, Ms. Marcher stated that the 1998 census' finding,

which placed the RCAF at 101,317 personnel, was incorrect because it did not account

for 45,000 people dwelling in conflict-ridden districts. Therefore, she implies that

all of these 45,000 people living in war-ridden areas had defected to the RCAF in

the wake of the conflict and were thence placed onto the RCAF payroll.

Had Ms Marcher consulted pages 14 and 12 of the census, she would have seen that

the vast majority of these 45,000 individuals would not qualify for service in the

RCAF and could not have defected. Women make up 51.8% of the population, while 53%

are under the age of eighteen - neither of these demographic groups is eligible to

function as soldiers in the RCAF. This eliminates approximately 32,646 from the original

45,000, suggesting that there were only about 12,354 adult males living in inaccessible

districts. In addition, former FUNCINPEC General Nhek Bun Chey conceded that 10,000

of his troops fighting in the 1997-1998 conflict were not integrated into the RCAF.

This leaves only 2,354 men who could have defected to the RCAF in the wake of hostilities,

bringing the total size of the RCAF from 101,397 to approximately 103,673 in 1999.

This figure is far lower than World Bank findings. Page three of the 2000 World Bank

Country Assistance Strategy report for Cambodia reads: "Registration of nearly

150,000 military personnel was completed in 1999. This process helped to eliminate

15,000 'ghost soldiers'." Therefore, in 1999, the RCAF contained approximately

47,000 fewer soldiers than the World Bank report asserts. At most, one can add 1,845

troops to this figure to account for the census' 1.78% margin of error.

Ms Marcher's interview with World Bank representative Mr. Mbida-Essama was even more

problematic than her cursory arithmetic analysis. My article suggested that non-existent

ghost soldiers could receive demobilization packages, which could be embezzled by

RCAF officers. Mr. Mbida-Essama responded in his interview with Ms Marcher: "You

can not give a health check to a ghost...If you don't identify as a demobilized soldier

in the database, you don't receive any of this, or any other benefits."

I doubt that the aid provided by the World Bank and other donors will be administered

by Mr. Mbida-Essama himself, or by other World Bank staff, but will instead rely

on Cambodian Government staff - leaving ample opportunity for mismanagement. This

comes as a great surprise, considering the World Bank report concedes on page two:

"Corruption is widespread at all levels of the [Cambodian] public sector."

If the World Bank is willing to provide $15 million towards this tax payer-funded

programme, it ought to spend several hundred thousand dollars to hire an independent

auditng company like Price Waterhouse or Earnst and Young to scrutinize the aid distribution.

The most troubling aspect of Ms Marcher's article was Mr. Mbida-Essama's remarkable

statement: "I was never interviewed by [McLeod] and I never met him." While

I invite discussion and criticism of my articles, I find it highly unethical that

Mr. Mbida-Essama would lie by suggesting that I fabricated his comments that I published.

If Mr. Mbida- Essama believes that I fabricated an interview with him, he should

consult a lawyer and pursue charges of libel against me. It is a serious matter to

fabricate an interview with a high-ranking official in the World Bank. Certainly,

if any reporter were to commit such an act, the defamed official would promptly seek

legal retribution. Mr. Mbida-Essama has not done this. In fact, he did not even have

the wherewithal to publish a response to the Bangkok Post. Instead, he has vented

his accusations through an overzealous and poorly informed reporter at a local newspaper.

I would speculate that Mr. Mbida-Essama's nefarious comments were motivated by his

anger over the fact that I wrote a four-page letter to his superior in Washington,

Natasha Beschomer, alerting her of my findings regarding the demobilization programme.

That my article prompted eleven opposition parliamentarians and several members of

the NGO community in Cambodia to send letters of complaint to World Bank headquarters

probably heightened his desire to seek revenge against me.

To make it perfectly clear, I interviewed Bonaventure Mbida-Essama on October 11,

2000 at 9:30 AM. I have a transcript of this interview, and my presence at the office

can be confirmed by consulting the building's registration book. If Mr. Mbida-Essama

genuinely believes that I fabricated the interview published in my October 19 article,

I would urge him to pursue legal challenges against me. If Mr. Mbida-Essama's statement

to Ms Marcher was a result of memory lapse, I hope that he will publicly retract

his remarks.

- George McLeod Phnom Penh

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