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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - WFP rice theft goes unpunished

WFP rice theft goes unpunished

UN World Food Program country director Thomas Keusters says the government has still not taken disciplinary action against any of the scores of government employees who were allegedly involved in the major rice fraud network uncovered this year.

"I don't know the reason for this; I assume the government is waiting until we have agreement to resolve the outstanding issues," he said. "I am not concerned about the delay, possibly allowing people to escape punishment. It took 25 years to bring Klaus Barbie to justice for Nazi war crimes."

The government earlier agreed to compensate the WFP for losses traced to government employees, take disciplinary action and devise security measures to prevent a recurrence of diversion and thefts from the Food For Work scheme, which occurred over a period of at least 15 months and involved up to $2 million worth of rice, oil and fish.

WFP has fired eight of its staff.

Keusters said a Kampong Cham school principal and his deputy would be sacked by the Education Department for stealing food from the WFP's school feeding program.

"This is the only action we know of that has been taken against government employees," he said. "It happened in June, we were aware of it, and we took immediate action to recover the stolen food and report it to the education authorities. We recovered 240 kg of rice, some oil and some fish."

Education officials also accused the pair of stealing money marked for school improvements.

Keusters had been hoping for a meeting this week with Deputy Prime Minister Sok An, who chairs a committee dealing with the fraud. Instead, he said, Sok An responded to a letter from WFP senior deputy executive director Jean-Jacques Graisse, saying he was considering proposals contained in that letter.

"I'm not prepared to give any details of our proposals until we do have agreement. We have ongoing negotiations and it would be inappropriate to comment. I still hope that the FFW scheme will be able to resume in January," Keusters said.

All new FFW projects were frozen by the fraud discovery and resumption is dependent on what the government decides to do about its promises to the WFP.

He said the WFP board "confirmed we have to have a result in the three areas: compensation, sanctions, measures to ensure no recurrence.

"The government did not agree with our figures, that's why we left [the last meeting] early. I don't know why they don't agree. They have their own measurements and we stand behind our figures. This has to be negotiated."

Asked about the effects of suspending the FFW in rural areas, Keusters said: "From the little I've seen when travelling in rural areas, the situation is not disastrous.

"FFW projects will be defined in the next two months, to determine activities after rice planting. Workshops are being held to agree on development plans. We have in store 20,000 tons of rice which includes the last 15,000 ton gift from Japan. This is more than enough to cover all major FFW projects."

Asked whether the 4,000 tons that went missing would have been too much for the local markets to handle, Keusters replied: "If the average consumption per person is 400 grams per day, it was not too much for the local markets."

The WFP has begun distributing 1000 tons of emergency rice supplies to desperately hungry people in districts of four drought-affected provinces. Keusters said needs were assessed jointly with the Lutheran World Federation and the National Committee on Disaster Management. "The situation in these areas is very bad- they have no domestic food reserves and no alternative coping mechanism. There are no reports of starvation but we know that people are forced to go into debt to obtain food and some resort to eating plant roots."

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