Villagers have been wondering why a red gravel road was built two years ago in swampland off National Road 1 in Meanchey district of Phnom Penh.
The road has been blocked by two gates since completion of construction and the land is fenced off by barbed wire, preventing public access, villagers say.
Yet today, the Ministry of Rural Development is seeking $570,000 of Japanese grant money for the road and five others in Prey Veng and Kompong Cham provinces.
According to documents obtained by The Cambodia Daily, Secretary of State Yim Chhai Ly maintains the six projects are public roads built earlier this year by private construction firms. The documents include assessment reports allegedly by an inter-ministerial commission verifying the projects were completed.
But an investigation by The Daily shows that only four of the six roads have been renovated, and those were completed two years ago. In some cases, the work was done by a different company than indicated in the documents. Furthermore, several government officials and the Japanese embassy now suspect the road in Meanchey district was built for private rather than public benefit.
Japanese embassy officials say they have recently started an investigation of the sites and have asked the Finance Ministry to start a probe as well. The Rural Development Ministry’s application for the Japanese grant money was made to the Finance Ministry, which now has to decide whether to disburse the funds.
Yim Chhai Ly admitted in a recent interview that the ministry put false dates and assessment reports on the disbursement request documents to try to show the projects were just completed. However, he said the ministry did this on the advice of the Finance Ministry so it could be paid money owed it on roads built two years ago.
“I don’t think it was wrong to change dates on the documents,” he said. “That’s a simple technical matter. We needed to adjust the documents to the Japanese grant disbursement procedure.”
When contacted recently, Finance Minister Keat Chhon refused to make any comments on the issue. “This is a sensitive issue, I don’t want to make any comment.”
Rural Development Minister Chhim Seak Leng, a Funcinpec appointee who only began his current post late last year after serving as Phnom Penh governor, said that he had not been informed of the six road projects until a couple of weeks ago and never had been involved in requesting the money.
“Ongoing old projects taken over from the previous government are in charge of Yim Chhai Ly. I’m responsible for only new projects,” Chhim Seak Leng said. “I don’t even know where the road project sites are.”
“If the ministry has really owed the companies, we would like to clear the debts,” he added, but noted that he needs proof that money is still owed. He said he has ordered Yim Chhai Ly to take him to the six sites and he has been given maps for all six projects except the one in Phnom Penh.
However, three project sites on the map—two in Kompong Cham and one in Prey Veng provinces—differ from those on a site map another Yim Chhai Ly staff member gave to The Cambodia Daily last week. Yoeum Sophal, deputy director of the ministry’s planning department, said that the site map given to The Daily is the one that has been submitted to the Japanese Embassy.
Minister Chhim Seak Leng said last week that he would like to visit the sites with Japanese embassy officials to check on any discrepancies between the two sets of maps.
According to the Japanese embassy, the Rural Development Ministry applied in January 1997 for funds to pay for nine rural road rehabilitation projects and one school building project, but the Japanese government didn’t approve any of the projects because sufficient supporting documents were lacking.
A second request in late 1997 was rejected for the same reason, Japanese Embassy officials said. In January of this year, Tokyo finally approved the request. Each of the three requests had included the six road projects now at the center of the controversy.
Yim Chhai Ly explained in a recent interview that the ministry didn’t wait for approval by the Japanese because co-Minister of Interior Sar Kheng and then Second Prime Minister Hun Sen in early 1997 urged the Rural Development Ministry to start seven rural development projects including five now in controversy.
Yim Chhai Ly added that his understanding was that Japan virtually approved the projects in early 1997 but had not formalized the approval until this year because of Cambodia’s unstable political situation.
Yim Chhai Ly said that a road project less than 20 km does not need permission from the top levels of government. The road in Meanchey district was just 7 km long so the ministry carried out the project without any recommendation from Sar Kheng or Hun Sen, he said.
Of the other five projects, three are in Prey Veng, the home province of Sar Kheng and Yim Chhai Ly, and two are in Kompong Cham, according to a copy of the letter signed by Sar Kheng.
The road project in Meanchey district especially would seem to raise questions.
According to copies of the disbursement requests, the Rural Development Ministry signed a contract with Run Run Construction Co on March 29 of this year to resurface a 7 km stretch of a road in Boeung Snor village of Meanchey district between National Road 1 and the Mekong River.
The contract said the work would take about 180 days to complete.
Within a month, the company sent an invoice to the ministry to ask for payment of $96,700, on the basis that the project had been completed. An inter-ministerial commission allegedly assessed the construction site and reported on April 27 that the project had been completed and the money should be disbursed, according to the assessment report.
However, villagers recently said that no road projects were done in either March or April in Boeung Snor village. The road closed with double gates is the only rural road recently built inside the village, and that was more than a year ago, they said.
“There is only one rural road in the village, and that was built about two years ago,” said a villager who lives near the gate but would not give her name. “The road and the land seem to belong to a private person and no one has been allowed to enter the inside of the gate since the road was built.”
Two commune police officers and villagers said that they had heard the land was bought by top government officials before the road was built. But who actually owns the land couldn’t be confirmed during a recent visit.
Yutaka Nomura, Japanese embassy’s second secretary, said that when he visited the site recently to check its status he was told by ministry officials that villagers had sold the land to a private individual after the road was constructed.
Ly Proh, director of the ministry’s planning department, said in late June that he was not aware of any gates or fences along the road.
But in a recent interview, Yim Chhai Ly denied the villagers’ accusation, claiming that the land with the road belongs to the municipality and the villagers themselves built gates and fences to prevent heavy trucks from using the road. He also said that he recently ordered the villagers to remove the fences and gates.
Ly Narun, owner of the construction company, could not be reached for comment. A staff member from the company said he did not know anything about the project.
The projects in Kompong Cham province also raises questions.
Documents say a 20 km road was rehabilitated in Ampil village of Ponhea Krek district and another 20 km road was repaired in Doun Tei commune of Ponhea Krek district of Kompong Cham province by private companies. And the assessment report of the Doun Tei project says that the Run Run company widened a road originally rehabilitated by the German-funded Tertiary Rural Road Improvement Program, or TRIP.
But Graham McCallum, program manager of TRIP, said last month that none of the TRIP-rehabilitated roads in Doun Tei commune have been repaired by a private construction company.
A technical official of an international organization in Kompong Cham said that as far as he knows no work has been done in Ampil village. He also maintained that the Ampil road on the site map the minister obtained has deteriorated and no rehabilitation work has been done for a year.
In Prey Veng, local officials say all the three contested projects were completed in 1997 and that neither of the two companies on the documents did the work.
Touch Setha, deputy director of the provincial rural development department, said last month by telephone that the 45 km road from Svay Antor district to Komchay Mear district was built by Con-Aid, not by the Run Run company, as stated in the documents.
Two other projects, a 20 km road in Anchay Mear district and a 16.75 km road in Kampong Trabek district, were built by a unknown local private company, he said.
An official of the World Food Program in Prey Veng said that the 45-km road is referred to as the “Sar Kheng road” by villagers and the 16.75 km road has a billboard sign saying “a gift of Hun Sen.” The aid worker said he is not sure who funded the projects and who conducted the rehabilitation, but heard that the money was not fully reimbursed to the companies.
Kong Vibol, Secretary of State for the Finance Ministry, said whether the government disburses the money for the six road projects will be up to Finance Minister Keat Chhon.
“I’ve talked with the minister [Chhim Seak Leng] and Yim Chhai Ly the other day and both said the documents were OK,” Kong Vibol said recently. “I’ll let our minister decide if we disburse the funds or not.”
Meanwhile, Yutaka Nomura, the Japanese Embassy’s second secretary, said the embassy will wait for the Finance Ministry’s report.
“We’ve already asked the Finance Ministry to investigate all six projects,” he said. “We will wait for the investigation report from the ministry and if necessary we will take some actions.”