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Lawmakers approve '09 budget

Opposition questions level of foreign debt and urges better use of aid

AFTER two days of debate, the National Assembly on Tuesday approved a public spending budget of US$1.8 billion for next year but backed down on a vow to double military spending. 

"The military budget is only $160 million," said Cheam Yeap, head of the Cambodian parliament's finance commission.

While the bill passed with 81 out of 95 votes cast in support, opposition lawmakers expressed concern that overseas debt could climb to crippling heights.

"That is money that people have to pay back," said opposition Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Yim Sovann, who questioned what tangible benefits Cambodia would receive from the recently-pledged $951 million in foreign aid.

"I want to know how the government is going to use that aid," he said, claiming that the overwhelming majority of public money ended up in the pockets of corrupt officials rather than on much-needed public infrastructure.

But Cheam Yeap defended the government's management of public funds and dismissed the opposition's concern over foreign debt as exaggerated.

The International Monetary Fund cancelled the $81 million it was owed by the Cambodian government, Cheam Yeap said, adding that China was considering following suit and cancelling its outstanding debts.

Since the 1970s, successive Cambodian governments have amassed outstanding debts to the tune of some $2.37 billion. This amounts to 20 percent of the Kingdom's gross domestic product, said Ouk Rabun, a secretary of state at the Ministry of Economy and Finance.

"If we don't borrow from them to build and improve our infrastructure, what can we do? We should keep poor infrastructure like this?" Ouk Rabun said.

"Our country is poor. If we don't borrow, where can we get the money to build?"

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY AFP

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