WORLD Bank chief Bonaventure Mbida Essama is infuriated by allegations by the Sam
Rainsy Party (SRP) and freelance journalist George McLeod in the Bangkok Post that
the World-Bank-coordinated demobilization program is riddled with corruption and
Mbida-Essama's anger was sparked by an article by McLeod published in the Bangkok
Post on October 29 in which opposition leader Sam Rainsy castigated the demobilization
program for alleged corruption and fraud.
"When people make big statements, they should think more carefully about the
logic of their statements; as far as I'm concerned, there is no logic [in these allegations],"
He denies ever being interviewed by McLeod, despite assertions in the Bangkok Post
article that McLeod had asked Mbida-Essama why numbers from the 1998 census and the
official demobilization figures do not correspond. The article also quotes Mbida-Essama
as saying the census numbers were "wrong".
"I was never interviewed by [McLeod] and I never met him," Mbida-Essama
said. "I vigorously deny that I ever made those statements."
He said he intends to write an official letter to the SRP and to the Bangkok Post
refuting the allegations.
The accusations of corruption were repeated in a letter from 11 SRP parliamentarians
to the World Bank's Vice-President for East Asia and Pacific Region, Jemal-Ud-Din
Kassum, in connection with his November 15-17 visit to Cambodia.
The letter singles out demobilization as one of the areas of SRP parliamentarians'
concern and refers to the Bangkok Post article for elaboration.
The demobilization program has projected costs of $45 million - most of which will
come from international donors. The Bangkok Post article claims that much of that
money will be used to pay for over 70,000 non-existent soldiers to return to civil
However, the arithmetic used by McLeod in the Bangkok Post article to calculate the
numbers of soldiers appears dubious.
By the end of the reintegration of various rebel forces in 1998, 155,000 soldiers
were on the military pay rolls. A registration process in early 1999 eliminated 14-plus
thousand non-existent "ghost" soldiers and war widows.
This brought the number down to 131,000 soldiers who are now registered in a central
database and have been issued with photo ID cards. Of those the demobilization program
will discharge a total of 31,500 - not 70,000 - by the end of 2003.
Based on information from Rainsy, McLeod's article states:
"The Cambodian Government claims that its force stands at 150,000, which contradicts
findings of a 1998 UN census that place the force at only 101,391. In addition, the
military eliminated 22,000 ghost soldiers or non-existent soldiers who are merely
names on paper in 1999. According to those figures, RCAF has only 79,391 soldiers
and staff, or 70,609 fewer than the Government claims."
The article later states that the figures in the census were "attained by making
direct head-counts of RCAF soldiers, not by simply asking RCAF officers". Thus,
the ghost soldiers could not have been included in the census figures.
Additionally, the census was conducted in March 1998, at a time when both Khmer Rouge
and Royalists were still fighting in the jungles.
The introduction to the census states that military operations made it impossible
to count the population in Samlot, Veal Veng and Anlong Veng districts and O Bei
Choan village - areas where a majority of rebel soldiers would have been based due
to the fighting. The census estimates the population of these areas to be 45,000.
SRP parliamentarian Yim Sovann, one of the signatories of the letter to World Bank
Vice-President Kassum, acknowledges that the difference between the demobilization
figures and the census is tens of thousands lower than the 70,609 claimed in the
Bangkok Post article.
"But I don't believe that all the people in the areas that the census didn't
count were soldiers," Sovann explained. "Maybe 20 percent of them were,
but no more."
He argues that friends or relatives of military commanders or other civilians could
have bribed army officers to obtain military registration cards. This would enable
them to volunteer for demobilization and thus wrongly receive the benefits and assistance
packages given to discharged soldiers.
"I have received information from local people and people in the military who
were very worried that the people who are demobilized were not soldiers before and
that they only registered to get the benefits," Sovann says.
A military analyst significantly downplays the likelihood that the number of registered
soldiers has been inflated by civilians who bribed their way into the military ranks.
"I'm not convinced that the figures in the database are inflated; there is a
possibility that some of the people who were registered were not recent performing
soldiers, but that does not necessarily mean that they never fought anybody,"
the analyst says.
He underlines the complexity of defining exactly who is a soldier and who is not,
due to the country's tumultuous past and the variety of armed factions that have
formed, dissolved, been integrated into RCAF or been reformed at different times
in the past decade.
Former royalist general Nhek Bun Chhay says 10,000 of his troops from the 1997-1998
fighting were never integrated into RCAF. It is widely believed that some of the
rebel soldiers were recruited while the fighting occurred and were not previously
employed in the military.
Also, Cambodian soldiers - rebels and RCAF alike - are known for drifting in and
out of service, many of them working as farmers or drivers during peaceful times.
"There comes a point when you have to draw a line in the sand and say that this
is where we start - this is what RCAF consists of now," the analyst said. "The
demobilization process could be stalled for generations if you had to check the past
and background of every single soldier".
Demobilized soldiers are given $240 in cash, 150 kilograms of rice, various agricultural
and household items, a health check, housing, and transportation to their new home.
Mbida-Essama says the possibility of commanding officers cashing in on the demobilization
program through ghost soldiers is very remote.
"You cannot give a health screening to a ghost," he says. "You cannot
give a bag of rice 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.
"We're not dealing with ghosts here. We're dealing with real people. It may
be possible that within those who remain in the army, there are still some ghosts
on the payroll. But that does not concern those who leave the military. They are
warm-bodied flesh and blood, not ghosts."