Telecoms companies operating in Cambodia owe the government millions of dollars in
badly-needed revenue, the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications (MPTC) has admitted.
Lay Mariveau, the MPTC's deputy director of planning and finance, said at least $8
million was in arrears, but would not give a precise figure.
That amount was the same given in a confidential US Embassy report, undated but clearly
written last year, which analyzed revenue collection by the government in 2000. It
noted that income at the MPTC fell well short of its target, and blamed the ministry
for not bothering to collect fees.
"Cambodia's five mobile phone operators owe $8.2 million in fees for 2000, which
the MPTC simply failed to collect," the report noted. It is still not clear
whether the fees were paid or what the current figure is.
Mariveau in turn blamed telecoms operators Shinawatra, Mobitel, SAMART, Camintel
and Camtel, saying they simply refused to pay.
"The debt just gets bigger and bigger because they only pay a little at a time,"
Mariveau said. "The MPTC's regulations are not strong enough, and sometimes
we simply cannot monitor how much revenue is collected by the operators."
MPTC Minister So Khun refused to speak to the Post.
The government has faced criticism for lax collection of revenue. That led the International
Monetary Fund (IMF) to institute a program to improve revenue raising. IMF representative
Robert Hagemann said pressure had been put on the government to calculate the telecoms
debt and collect the money.
"The process of determining the correct amount owed has taken much longer than
we would have expected," he said, "and it is our understanding that the
amount owed is still being reviewed."
But even senior figures at the ministry were unaware how much was outstanding. Koy
Kim Sea, under-secretary of state at the MPTC, is responsible for telecoms regulations.
"In theory I should be aware of the debt, but I only know as much as you do,"
he said. "It is always outstanding, but how much I do not know and how long
[it has been outstanding for] I do not know."
Mobitel's chief financial officer Mark Hanna said that although the company theoretically
owed money to the government, such amounts accrued naturally throughout the course
of the year.
"It is not debt, it is payables. Debt implies we borrowed money from the government,"
he said. "We have never borrowed any money from the government."
Hanna said payments from revenue sharing were generally settled the year after they
accumulated, and those figures appeared on Mobitel's balance sheet as money owed
He said the ministry also owed Mobitel a significant sum for interconnect calls,
which occur when calls are made between operators - in this case the government-owned
023 landline to a Mobitel 012 number. The ministry and Mobitel simply offset the
amounts owed to each other, he said, then settle the difference.
Hanna said other telecoms operators owed money to Mobitel for call traffic between
networks, and it was possible the ministry was having problems collecting money from
David Lee, department manager of finance and accounting at Shinawatra, declined to
comment when approached by the Post.
"Like any other company our financial dealings are confidential," he said.
"What I can say is that Shinawatra enjoys a very good relationship with the
Opposition MP Son Chhay, who was ousted last year as head of the National Assembly's
commission dealing with telecoms, said the problems were ongoing.
"Last year we raised this issue repeatedly, so the government appointed a joint
committee to look into the case," the outspoken MP said. "We learned that
it has not been successful and a large amount of money is still owed."
The MPTC voiced particular concern about Camtel, an analogue provider which Son Chhay
said owed $2.6 million in February 2001.
MPTC staff confirmed Camtel owed a substantial sum. Mariveau said the ministry was
concerned for Camtel's future as it has only 200 subscribers.
"We worry they will close the company," he said, explaining that another
company, Tricelcom, had quit Cambodia owing more than $3 million.
Son Chhay alleged that corruption within the MPTC left staff with little incentive
to chase outstanding fees. All the telecoms companies contacted by the Post vehemently
denied paying any ministry staff.
"There never have been any MPTC members on Mobitel's payroll in the role of
advisors," said Mobitel's Hanna. "It simply is not true."
However Minister So Khun last year admitted he had been on Mobitel's payroll since
1997 and was paid $2,500 a month as an "honorary advisor" to its board