OFFICIALS from the private sector have reported uneven implementation of the controversial partnerships between military units and local businesses that were announced three months ago and drew concerns that the arrangement would further obscure government finances and leave soldiers beholden to private interests.
A document signed by Prime Minister Hun Sen and dated February 22 set forth a list of roughly 60 partnerships between military units, government offices and private companies in a bid to drum up support for the Kingdom’s armed forces. Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan explained at the time that the government hoped to foster a “culture of sharing” in which companies would provide their partner units with food, shelter and other charitable donations.
Opposition and civil society members have since warned that the programme carries serious risks. In a statement released ahead of the Cambodia Development Cooperation Forum – a two-day meeting in which donors will assess the government’s progress on a number of reforms and make new aid pledges – corruption watchdog group Global Witness called the partnerships one of “a series of revelations of high-level corruption and governance failures over the last 18 months” that donors must address. Global Witness campaigns director Gavin Hayman said in a March statement that the arrangement was “tantamount to sanctioning a mercenary force”.
Ministry of Defence spokesman Chhum Socheat said Tuesday that military units and private companies were “continuing to form partnerships”. He did not have figures on the number of companies participating in the scheme, but he said that broad support from the private sector “boosts morale on the front lines and encourages soldiers to behave more bravely”.
On Friday, officials from Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) Division 3, the Council of Ministers and the Kraek Rubber Plantation Company signed an agreement formalising a partnership that was first set forth in the February document, RCAF Division 3 commander Srey Doek said.
The Council of Ministers, Srey Doek added, had donated roughly US$4 million to the division, and Kraek Rubber Plantation Company agreed to build an artillery training centre and a base for the division’s tank battalion, valued together at $220,000.
“The donations and support from the government and the private sector will help relieve the difficulties facing soldiers and their families at the base,” Srey Doek said.
Tan Monivan, deputy director general of the Mong Reththy Group, said his company had provided financial support, food, solar panels and generators to the RCAF units with which it had been partnered: Region 3’s Battalion 827 and Region 5’s Messenger Unit. He declined to put a dollar figure on the company’s contributions, though he said they had fallen short of the units’ demands.
“We offered them about 80 percent of what they asked for, based on what we could afford,” Tan Monivan said.
Representatives of other companies named in the original announcement, however, said they were not aware of any contributions to the military made by their firms.
Mobile-phone operator Mobitel, owned by the Royal Group, is listed in the document signed by Hun Sen in February as the benefactor of RCAF Region 4’s headquarters and Battalion 793. Mobitel General Manager David Spriggs said Tuesday, however, that he was “not aware of any specific request” from the military or government. Royal Group chief financial officer Mark Hanna said he had no knowledge of such a partnership, while Royal Group CEO Kith Meng declined to comment.
Canadia Bank vice president Dieter Billmeier said he had “no idea” whether his company had participated in the programme. Canadia Bank is paired with RCAF Region 5’s Battalion 815 and Brigade 14 in the February document.
Billmeier said there is “nothing in the expenses, nothing in the balance sheet” to indicate that Canadia is involved in these partnerships, though he noted that senior executives may have chosen to contribute private donations.
Stephen Higgins, CEO of ANZ Royal Bank, said in an email on Tuesday that his company had declined to participate in the programme despite being listed as supporter of RCAF Division 3’s Brigade 8 and Region 4’s Battalion 905.
“As a global organisation, operating in many countries, it is not appropriate for ANZ to provide financial support to the Military, in any country in which it operates,” he wrote.
Ly Yong Phat, a senator from the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and head of the LYP Group, confirmed in March that he would be providing support to the military under the new programme. Observers say Ly Yong Phat’s manipulation of his military partnership thus far demonstrates the dangers of such an arrangement.
Residents of Kampong Speu province’s Thpong district said in March that troops from RCAF Battalion 313, assigned for support from Ly Yong Phat under the new programme, had been deployed to protect a land concession of the senator’s against which local villagers had protested.
“I think that’s a conflict of interest, and the corruption is there,” said Sam Rainsy Party spokesman Yim Sovann. “You see that [with] Ly Yong Phat,
the CPP senator and also Okhna, and you can see that more than 100 military forces have forced the people from their land.”
Chhum Socheat said he was aware of this case, but that he did not believe it was cause for concern.
“I heard about the case of the land dispute between the Ly Yong Phat company and the villagers in Kampong Speu, but I do not have documents to prove whether the soldiers, the company and the villagers are right or wrong,” Chhum Socheat said.
“Anyway, I don’t think this is a problem because we are all under the law, and if any side does anything wrong, we have the law.”