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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Donors fiddle while CMAC burns

Donors fiddle while CMAC burns

A year ago next month, the first public cracks appeared in the carefully crafted

fiction of the professionalism and institutional integrity of the Cambodian Mine

Action Center (CMAC).

Press reports about a fraudulent salary scheme in

Demining Unit 4 marked the first drip in what would become a flood of evidence

of sleaze and dishonesty that put the lie to the mantra of CMAC management and

its donors that the demining agency was "the best in the world."


eleven months of audits, investigations, resignations and firings, any faint

hopes that the worst might have been over for CMAC were effectively dashed on

Feb 14 when CMAC's Canadian demining experts left the field claiming that

demining platoons had put lives at risk by falsely claiming that mined areas had

been demined.

What has been overlooked as one scandal has followed

another is the role that other agencies have had in the fiasco.


have been raised about the quality of leadership provided by the United Nations

Development Programme (UNDP) which administers the trust fund through which

donor funds are channeled to CMAC.

Doubts about UNDP's competence, sown

early on by former UNDP Resident Representative Paul Mathews' May 1999

insistence that the CMAC salary scandal was "irregular" rather than

"fraudulent," were heightened in August 1999 when CMAC UNDP Programme

Coordinator Richard Warren was accused by three senior UN personnel of

managerial incompetence and a willful obstruction of CMAC reform


In a gesture of personal and professional integrity rarely seen

within UN agencies in Cambodia, the three personnel later resigned en masse to

protest UNDP's failure to heed their warning of Warren's


Instead, UNDP not only allowed Warren to complete his contract

at the end of September, but according to reliable CMAC sources rewarded him for

his service with a "golden handshake" of six-months salary ($12,000 per month)

in addition to associated UN in-country benefits. CMAC deminers, the men and

women in the field who literally risk their lives each day to demine this

country, receive a monthly salary of $160.

Hopes that the arrival of

current UNDP Resident Representative Dominique McAdams would lead to both a

long-overdue investigation into allegations about Warren's role in CMAC's

problems and an easing of the UNDP blackout on substantive comment on CMAC

issues were quickly dashed.

Diplomatic sources said that Bill Van Ree, an

Australian demining expert who was brought in following Warren's departure,

initially made good progress in overseeing financial and managerial reform at

CMAC but was "driven from the job by McAdams."

Instead of addressing

UNDP's role in CMAC's failings, McAdams has devoted her energies to seeking new

revenue sources to alleviate the shortfall in funds usually generated by the 13%

UNDP takes off the top of grants to CMAC for administrative costs.


a bitter losing battle with the Canadian government over its decision to bypass

UNDP and directly fund the upcoming Level One Mine Contamination Survey, sources

within the new National Cambodian Demining Regulatory Authority (NCDRA) report

that McAdams is now lobbying furiously to abort a similar direct-funding deal

between the EU and NCDRA.

And though embassy representatives of donors

have consistently blustered with righteous indignation as each successive

scandal has broken, donor claims of ignorance at the extent of CMAC's rot are

disingenuous at best.

Whisperings of the chronic fraud, dishonesty,

nepotism and incompetence within the agency have filtered into the expatriate

community for years through the approximately 500 foreign technical advisors

cycled through the agency since 1992.

The braying of embassy personnel

over CMAC's failings was more of an embarrassed reaction to proof that they

didn't get out in the field much or hadn't been listening to what their own

people had been trying to tell them rather than the moral and legal implications

of the scandal.

Worse, the latest revelation of incompetence and fraud at

the field level of CMAC operations has raised serious doubts about the utility

and quality of seven years of intensive and expensive technical training of CMAC

personnel by foreign military technical advisors, who are paid a minimum of

$2,000 per month in addition to in-country housing, travel and per-diem


As Royal Advisor on CMAC Affairs Sam Sotha has pointed out,

foreign technical advisors who shared in the praise of CMAC's pre-scandal

operations era equally deserve a portion of the blame for instances in which

deminers they trained and supervised have performed improperly or


Rather than address this and other potentially embarrassing

issues, however, donors have effectively abandoned CMAC to twist in the


Months into a largely successful management reform program

spearheaded by CMAC Director General Khem Sophoan, donors have damned the agency

with a trickle of donor funding that condemns CMAC and its employees to a

constant crisis footing.

"I don't understand why donors won't give us the

money we need," sighed a weary Sophoan on Feb 17 as he anticipated yet another

temporary shutdown of demining operations due to a lack of donor funding. "What

else do donors want us to do?"

Sophoan's confusion is understandable,

since for the last seven months donors have themselves appeared uncertain about

their intentions for CMAC after making a spectacularly ignominious climb down

from a list of demands tendered to the agency's management on August 4,


The "Draft Donor Framework Towards Normalization of Relations With

CMAC" listed an excruciatingly specific list of 32 demands for CMAC reform

within an immediate, short and medium time frame.

Resumption of "normal"

funding for the agency, the document cautioned, was linked directly to

fulfillment of those demands.

Despite some initial success - notably the

dismissal of then-Director General Sam Sotha - within weeks of its issue both

CMAC management and donors were behaving as if the document never


"The donors blinked," explained one frustrated CMAC staffer.

"When it became clear that existing CMAC management was quite willing to let

CMAC be closed down rather than comply with a timetable for specific reform

targets, donors calculated that the potential political fallout in their own

countries that a shutdown would create wasn't worth it, so specific reform

targets were abandoned."

Proof of the short-lived duration of donor

bluster on CMAC reform is easy to chronicle.

Months of repeated public

assurances by UNDP and donors beginning in April 1999 that the results of a

intensive KPMG audit into CMAC finances would determine the future of donor

relations with CMAC were proven false on Sept 29 when donors and UNDP refused to

release the report to the public, referring only to KPMG's findings as


"KPMG concluded that CMAC suffered from 'serious managerial

deficiencies," former CMAC UNDP Programme Coordinator Bill Van Ree told the Post

before departing CMAC in December 1999. "That was the key message of the audit,

and instead of being up-front about it, that message was


Likewise, don't ask donors about the results of the

investigation into the Demining Unit 3 fiasco - a demand donors classified as

"immediate" on Aug 4, 1999 - in which CMAC platoons contract-demined land in

area controlled by former KR commander Chhouk Rin.

If you do, the best

you'll get is embarrassed shrugs, or worse, from Australian representatives,

admonishments to "not get fixated on Chhouk Rin."

While the trinity of

accountability, transparency and capacity-building has long been the avowed

benchmark of donor efforts in Cambodia, the mystery of donors' intentions for

CMAC reeks of a confusion as unseemly as it is hypocritical.

There is

hope that CMAC's slow strangulation at the hands of its donor patrons might be

nearing an end. According to Australian Ambassador Malcolm Leader, the

Australian government has recognized that the bulk of CMAC reforms "have been

implemented or enunciated," and will be considering a return to normal funding

levels as early as April.

The Australian recognition that CMAC's

viability is threatened by continuation of the current drip-feed funding program

will hopefully prompt other donors to similarly review their


If not, as Sam Sotha has warned, the bimonthly threat of a

CMAC shutdown will make "mistakes" in the field such as those discovered by

Canadian technical advisors ever more likely, and prompt Khem Sophoan to

implement his plans to prevent the mass looting of CMAC equipment as hundreds of

deminers react to the strain created by a muddled and capricious donor policy

that has taken hostage of their futures



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