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Lawmakers open talks on budget

Lawmakers open talks on budget

First debate session focuses on higher defence spending

DEBATE over sharp increases in defence spending dominated the first day of talks on the 2009 national budget draft Monday at the National Assembly, with opposition lawmakers criticising the influx of money for the military as being poorly allocated.

Amid concerns for national defence sparked by the ongoing territorial dispute with Thailand, the government has proposed increasing military spending by 64 percent to more than US$218 million next year.

Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Mu Sochua criticised the defence plan, saying the funds would be better used in agriculture, rural development and women's affairs.

"The SRP agrees with the increase in the national budget for defence ... but what will this increase be used for?" she asked during a question period.

Prime Minister Hun Sen, however, said it was crucial to raise the salaries of the Kingdom's security forces, adding that the government would be criticised for whatever decision it took.

"We are always asked to increase the salaries for the military and police, so now we are increasing them," he said. "When we don't raise them, they criticise us. Now, when we raise the salaries, they still make criticisms."

National Assembly President Heng Samrin told reporters after the session that the new budget was aimed at improving living conditions for Cambodian soldiers.

"Ammunition is not our concern. We waged war for years until we got peace and independence, so our current increase is due to the poor living conditions of our armed forces," he said.

Eighty-five out of the 105 lawmakers present voted to pass the first of the budget law's five chapters.

If approved in its entirety, the budget will total about $1.8 billion - an increase of 28 percent on 2008, according to Cheam Yeap, chairman of the Commission of Economy, Finance, Banking and Auditing. Debate continues today.

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