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Telecoms companies owe millions in unpaid revenue

Telecoms companies owe millions in unpaid revenue

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

to MPTC.

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

them.

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

government."

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

of directors.

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