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Increases to military budget worry NGOs, political opposition

Increases to military budget worry NGOs, political opposition

Sam Rainsy Party and NGOs say increases in public spending should go towards social programs and economic infrastructure

GOVERNMENT proposals to sharply increase funds to the military and the prime minister's discretionary spending budget have raised concerns by the opposition party and local NGOs who say the money is being funnelled into corruption-prone sectors and should instead be used to bolster the country's social and economic development.

"If soldiers have no shoes, no uniforms, no money, you can imagine where the money is always going," said Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Yim Sovann. "I don't believe the National Audit Authority is really inspecting the way money is spent."

When it meets in early December, the National Assembly is expected to approve a fiscal budget for 2009 that increases military spending from US$224 million to $300 million, and unallocated funds for the prime minister to use on an ad-hoc basis from $196 million to $224 million.

The SRP was considering voting against the new budget allocations because they were not included in the spending debate, he added. But he doubted the proposals would be rejected, given the strength of the ruling party's numbers in parliament.

SRP lawmaker and spokesman Son Chhay questioned the ability of the government to increase its budget as the country's biggest-earning industries  - garments and tourism -  brace themselves for a downturn due to the global economic crisis.

He said unscrupulous spending by government officials was draining the public coffers and urged the government to close loopholes in tax collection. Companies and the wealthy were withholding large sums of money owed to the state, he said.    

Son Chhay also warned of a repeat of the military's last influx of new funds, which was plagued by graft.  

In 2002, the World Bank plunged $42 million into a demobilisation program that went awry. Fabricating tens of thousands of ghost soldiers, government officials pocketed huge sums of money, while many of the real soldiers meant to benefit from the program remained without benefits. The debacle has heightened suspicions over the military's ability to handle funds responsibly.    

I can assure you the 2009 budget won't go to corrupt opportunists.

Where bucks are needed

Chhit Sam Ath, executive director of NGO Forum on Cambodia, said local NGOs were concerned that the new budget allocations overlooked the most pressing needs of the population.
"Agriculture, education and rural development should be the top priorities because they help reduce poverty," he said.   

Cheam Yeap, chairman of the Assembly's finance committee, said Cambodia's military budget lagged behind those of other countries, making it vulnerable to foreign threats, and insisted there would be  no repeat of the ghost soldier scandal.

"I can assure you the 2009 budget won't go to corrupt opportunists. We (the CPP) were elected by millions of people; we have worked to gain the trust of the people," Cheam Yeap said. 

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