Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - CMAC funding crisis turns political turf war

CMAC funding crisis turns political turf war

CMAC funding crisis turns political turf war

DISPUTES over control of the future of the Cambodian Mine Action Center (CMAC) are

complicating CMAC management's efforts to avoid a looming shutdown of demining operations.

As CMAC Director General Khem Sophoan scrambles to keep the demining organization

operational while prying much-needed funding from reluctant foreign donors, former

CMAC Director General Sam Sotha has waded into the fray, serving notice that CMAC

be shut down and its staff laid off until donors come up with the required cash.

Sotha, who is now Prime Minister Hun Sen's Advisor on CMAC Affairs and Land Mind

Victim Assistance, told the Post that Hun Sen was "very upset" about the

donor refusal to renew full funding for the demining organization.

Hun Sen first mooted the idea of laying off 90% of CMAC staff earlier this month

in response to foreign donor insistence, in particular that of Australian Ambassador

Malcolm Leader, that the Cambodian government shoulder a greater share of CMAC's

operating costs.

"It's not my idea [to temporarily shut down CMAC]," Sotha explained. "But

if there's no [donor] money, there's no choice."

In a confidential letter sent last week by Sotha to Sophoan, Sotha apparently questioned

Sophoan's efforts to keep CMAC afloat.

According to a CMAC source who has read the letter, Sotha described CMAC as "

an old house [which] ... must be dismantled and then rebuilt."

In an interview with the Post on Oct 13, Sotha denied that he urged the dismantling

of CMAC, but added that "...the concept I somewhat agree with".

Sophoan is clearly distressed by the stance taken by Sotha, who in early August was

dismissed from his position as part of a reform package that donors have linked to

the resumption of funding to CMAC.

"I'm afraid that CMAC will become a political organization instead of a humanitarian

organization," Sophoan said of Sotha's renewed involvement with CMAC.

According to Sotha, Hun Sen's involvement in CMAC's funding troubles was simply an

expression of "concern".

"I don't see this as political," he said. "I know Hun Sen very well

... Without him CMAC wouldn't exist ... he wouldn't play games with CMAC."

Sotha also denied that his advisory role on CMAC affairs was tainted by personal

malice against CMAC management rooted in his dismissal in August.

"I would never give [Hun Sen] advice or use this position as a way to get revenge,"

Sotha said. "I've always said that I consider CMAC my baby ...though not the

people in CMAC headquarters."

A CMAC official who would only speak off the record indicated that Sotha's record

as the demining organization's Director General disqualified him from any further

involvement with CMAC.

"The KPMG audit specified that CMAC suffered from 'serious management deficiencies'",

the source explained. "As Director-General [during the period the audit covered]

Sam Sotha was ultimately responsible for those deficiencies."

Last week Sophoan outlined three options to resolve CMAC's funding crisis, one of

which included a complete shutdown favored by Sotha and Hun Sen, another which involved

the immediate dismissal of 30% of CMAC staff.

However, Sophoan clearly favors a third proposal which calls for temporary, graduated

pay cuts of all CMAC staff of between 20% and 50%.

"If we reduce the salaries [of CMAC employees], we can continue to do demining

work until the New Year," Sophoan told the Post on Oct. 7. "I would rather

struggle until we finish all the money in CMAC's budget before considering shutting

down operations."

Sophoan's leadership and the results of an audit of donor funds to CMAC by the international

accounting firm KPMG, which cleared CMAC management of embezzlement allegations,

have clearly helped boost donor confidence, with both Australia and Britain kicking

in short-term cash injections of $300,000 each in the past week.

Although Canadian Ambassador Normand Mailhot indicated that additional stopgap donor

funding was in the offing, the loosening of donor purse strings long-anticipated

by a positive result of the KPMG audit has not yet occurred, with donor countries

such as the United States still leery of future CMAC contributions.

"CMAC simply does not come up to standards by which responsible donors can justify

[resuming] funding," explained US Ambassador Kent W Weidemann. "Before

[donors] feel comfortable with funding CMAC ... we would also like to see that reform

plans are implemented [with] concrete results."

The continuing stoppage of donor support for CMAC has left Sophoan clearly distressed.

"I don't know why [the donors] won't give [CMAC] any money," Sophoan said.

According to Sophoan, donor insistence that the Cambodian government shoulder a larger

share of CMAC's operating cost (the government has contributed only $50,000 of the

$1.7 million it has committed to CMAC for this year) is unfair and unrealistic.

"$50,000 is all the government can afford ... salaries of government officials,

soldiers and policemen haven't been paid since July," Sophoan explained. "Prime

Minister Hun Sen has pointed out that donors all have representatives on the IMF

and in the World Bank and should understand the budget [constraints] of the Cambodian

government."

Sophoan remains hopeful that a resolution of CMAC's funding crisis can still be achieved.

"I hope that donor countries don't want CMAC to fail," Sophoan said. "CMAC

is not a political organization, it's a humanitarian organization that cares about

reducing [mine] casualties."

Unfortunately for Sophoan, Sotha feels that an imminent closure of CMAC is almost

unavoidable.

"It's logical and reasonable for donors to renew funding," Sotha said.

"But if they don't, myself and [CMAC Chairman] Ieng Mouly and [CMAC's] Standing

Committee agree that CMAC should close down."

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