Ready for work: the NAA's new uniforms.
he National Audit Authority (NAA), which has the job of auditing the government's
finances and presenting the results to parliament, will next month celebrate the
first anniversary of its start of operations.
Its founding in March 2000 and the appointment of its senior staff in August 2001
was toasted by donors as a great step forward in bringing good governance to the
state's opaque finances.
However to date the only work the NAA has completed and released is the regulation
that governs its insignia and official uniforms - smart white or blue pants, and
white jackets with gold braid.
The authority now has the clothes, the laptops, and for more than a year has had
an auditor-general. Critics charge that it only lacks impartial senior staff: the
head of the NAA is from the Cambodian People's Party (CPP), while his two deputies
are from Funcinpec.
Auditor-general Uth Chhorn, who declined an interview with the Post, was formerly
secretary of state at the Ministry of Economy and Finance (MEF). Former senator Sin
Po joined as his deputy, as did Seng Ronn, a legal advisor to Prince Norodom Ranariddh.
Their appointments immediately raised questions about a lack of impartiality, although
the Asian Development Bank (ADB), which contributes financial and technical assistance
to the unit, rejected that allegation.
The ADB was one of several to hail the NAA as a step forward in the fight against
corruption. But country head Urooj Malik concedes the NAA's highly political line-up
is far from ideal.
"Usually in other countries the audit office is totally independent," says
Malik. "In the Cambodian context ... because of geopolitical perspectives, we
found the person who was appointed [as auditor-general] was not from non-government.
That is not the perfect situation to be in.
"What is important is for the auditor-general and his deputies to make this
into an effective, functioning body which does its work in a transparent manner."
The audit law was first discussed in 1995 by Malik and then finance minister Sam
Rainsy. When Rainsy was sacked later that year, Malik continued discussions with
his replacement, Keat Chhon. Approval for the first phase of the project was given
The final audit law was eventually signed by the King in March 2000, and in August
2001, the auditor-general and his two deputies were appointed.
Deputy auditor-general Sin Po shares Malik's hopes of a transparent organization,
but even he feels the NAA does not live up to these expectations. He says that neither
he nor Seng Ronn have been given any work since they were appointed 16 months ago.
"I am just reading newspapers and some documents," says a frustrated Po.
"The auditor-general is from one political party and I'm from another ... so
we should work together to ensure transparency. But if one side is taking all the
work, I don't feel this is transparent."
Transparency is very much on the mind of Chea Vannath, president of the Center for
Social Development (CSD) and one of the people leading the drive to quell corruption.
She says without political impartiality, the institute will be seen as merely symbolic,
set up by the government to appease donors.
"The country is damaged by corruption," says Vannath. "Unless the
NAA has the means and political clout to fight corruption and unless it is really
independent ... then it has limitations in the fight against corruption."
She says the NAA's supposed independence is exposed by its highly political structure.
"The composition shows that the NAA [exists] for the principle, and not the
real fight against corruption," she says.
However the problems go beyond its alleged lack of independence. Other issues are
obvious tensions among senior staff, and the ambiguous audit law under which it operates.
Po says the law gives too much power to his boss.
Articles 37, 38 and 39 are those to which he objects. They state that Uth Chhorn
can omit information from a report if "it would prejudice the security, sovereignty,
defense or international relations of the Kingdom of Cambodia", or if it would
"unfairly prejudice the commercial interest of any legal entity or person".
"The auditor-general can decide not to prepare a public report," says Po.
"This gives him too much authority [and] there is no way to check this unless
you have a committee to make the decision."
Another vocal critic of corruption is Son Chhay, an MP with the opposition Sam Rainsy
Party (SRP). He shares Po's worries that the law will be misused, but feels the clauses
were a deliberate effort to circumvent transparency.
"They never determine clearly what is in the public's interest," he says.
"The purpose behind this was to create a loophole that the government can abuse."
Po is also concerned that the authority is under the sway of the Ministry of Economy
and Finance (MEF). Another article in the audit law states that the NAA will be administered
"in accordance with the Financial Law".
That, he says, gives the ministry complete control over the government's watchdog,
as the NAA has to submit monthly requests to MEF for cash.
"If the MEF is not happy, they might make it difficult for us to withdraw our
funds," he explains.
However the NAA's secretary-general, Chan Tani, says allegations of political bias
are unfounded. "If it was a Republican or Democrat in the US they would not
ask that question. CPP, Funcinpec - are we not all Cambodians?" he asks. "We
work for the best of the Cambodian people. We do the best job we can and whoever
wants to see our independence can form their opinions themselves."
Both Chan Tani and Malik feel the NAA has progressed in leaps and bounds over the
"I think it's fair to say that they have made remarkable progress," says
Malik. "The office has been renovated ... and the NAA is operational."
Tani says its achievements go further than that.
"We moved into this building in January 2002, and we will have audited five
departments by the end of the year," he told the Post in early November.
These include the Ministry of Public Works and Transport, which he says was audited
earlier in the year. But the SRP's Son Chhay has not seen any documents distributed
to members of parliament, a stipulation of the audit law.
The NAA also audited MEF's budget realization report for 2001, but the date of its
release to the National Assembly is still unclear. Son Chhay was told the report
would be submitted on November 29, but it did not materialize.
The law states that the ministry that has been audited has 28 days to review and
offer comment on a finished report before it is submitted to the National Assembly,
but neither Chan Tani nor Uth Chhorn could say when the report was sent to MEF.
Sin Po has not seen the report, and has no idea when it will be released. "They
didn't tell me. I'm the second man, but they just say 'soon'," says Po. "I
doubt [the report can be independent] because it is a question of transparency ...
I have not been involved in the audit of the [MEF], the auditor-general does it alone."
CSD's Vannath says the NAA faces fundamental problems of working in a country where
corruption is ingrained. Tackling low salaries in the civil service, she says, is
another important step the government should be taking.
"We have two different types of corruption here in Cambodia: small survival
corruption and big corruption," she explains.
"The NAA is the spider web - it may catch the insects, the small corruption,
but the spider web is too soft to get the birds, the big corruption."